A Conversation within the Void
Past vs the Present
What would happen if humans invented a way to converse with a past version of themselves. In a face to face confrontation within the mind of the present self. I have always imagined this scenario as standing in a white void, empty as a depressing blank canvas in a sea of colorful masterpieces. No furniture, the only light would come from above with no visible source. Just the almost inaudible continuous buzz of the light. Not even a breeze, only the sound of soft jazz filling the area as the past and present argue. I would love the chance to talk to my past self from 2012, she still has that: roundish face, rosy cheeks, and gap-toothed grin of deception. Two long braids are perfect material for jump rope to make the children smile. The conversation would be awkward at first, us sitting on the ground without concern if it was dirty. I would like to give her some pats on the head telling her it’s okay, your emotional wounds will heal with time. Show off my green strip in my hair, try to understand her speech, correct her, tell her about all the great friends and experiences she has yet to encounter. Explain to her how the incident would get better with time, yet dread her incoming questions. She would ask “how much does Tyler smile in the future?” “Do Mom and Grandma smile more?” When answering “ I don’t know” to the first one she would grow quiet and smile saying”It’s okay I’m dumb”. This answer leaves the present self with a pit in my stomach, the present already understanding the consequences and impacts. The depletion of self esteem staring right back at myself; smiling. I imagine a match between positivity and self depreciation would begin. My past self would cry with her head down denying any fact that the words of the present were true. No matter the overwhelming load of positive boosts the present would shout nothing but sobs from the past. Finally the statement would surface; “It really was a mistake, wasn’t it?”
No, this mistake broke me out of the cycle. Teaching me to stand up for
There was an incident that happened in 2nd grade that ruined the month of April for me. For five years April was a month of anxiety, a constant fear that an unknown catastrophe would change my life once more. Constantly alert; observing the environment checking for signs of that all too familiar dented blue truck, or the change in tone of my grandma’s voice. Her voice changed to conceal the bubbling nervousness, welling up inside of her. Unable to hide the pain of watching her grandchildren sob. That night we went over to my grandparents house for rice pilaf, butter pan seared asparagus and well-done steak. My mom drove us back in her black Mercedes 2000, my grandma in the passenger seat. My older brother Tyler was behind my grandma and I was behind my mom. I was eight and my brother was ten. I remember worrying about the spelling test the next morning, I always studied with my dad beforehand, we didn’t that night. We lived in a small neighborhood surrounded by forests on a road called Fox Fire, as we drove back I commonly imagined holding onto the moon’s hand taking the moon for a walk. Or imagining a ninja acrobating off of the signs and trees. That abruptly stopped because my mom almost hit a deer on our street. Who could have predicted that not only five hours later, I would be that doe staring into the headlights petrified, my breath escaping me. After the incident it felt as if time had stopped, I was sitting on the armrest of the couch, observing the start of the mental fatigue taking hold of my family. Everyone hunched over in a tight closed off position all trying to comprehend reality except me. I didn’t understand why the blaring red and blue lights kaleidoscoped through the chandelier, why my grandma won’t let me see my mom, why Tyler looked mentally shattered. No one could answer my questions why that image and his voice wasn’t disappearing. As if an old VHS tape was stuck on loop, “I- I’m sorry Madeline” the phrase continued no matter the damage of the tape. The next morning I didn’t want to take that spelling test, so I asked my teacher why would the red and blue lights take away my dad? Maybe she would have an answer for me, but she didn’t. As days went on the adults would clamor around Tyler and I; your dad did something really bad they would try to explain. Tyler witnessed and ended the incident, saving the most important person in my life. I only saw the tail end. Suddenly the memory resurfaced and the VHS tape looped, why would he say “I am sorry”?
The piano dances a merry tune accompanied by the repeating csh csh of the cymbal. The past looks up at the present, turning her head to the side as if she was a confused puppy. She repeats the question, as the present staggers back… swallowing the memory of the VHS tape.
“ He said…he was sorry since there was nothing else he could say than beg you for forgiveness.” the present looks up at the invisible light source for guidance, wishing for this moment to pass.
“I am sorry too then.” the past looks down at her sneakers, twin braids flopping and swinging across her face. The yellow, brown, and purple spots healing on her knees. Hands cupped on her elbows squeezing tightly; self- hugging.
“No no no” The present bends down, tucking/sitting on her feet underneath herself. Reaching for another head pat, “ There is no need for you to apologize for his actions.”
“ Who else will apologize then?” The past responds in a barely audible shaky voice.
“ No one, an apology doesn’t automatically fix everything.”
“ Why not?” the past turns her head again, the present softly smiles.
“ Cause if you constantly repeat the same words they lose their meaning. For example if you only had bananas for each meal you would get bored, right?”
“ But I love bananas!!” The past bounced up and down on her tip-toes, grinning.
“ There’s that true smile, and I still like bananas but not as much as you.”
“ Thank you for making me smile.” The past winks, still grinning.
“ Of course.” The present nods, observing the actions and facial expressions of the past, that’s good he hasn’t affected her yet.
A True Smile!
As a general rule smiles show happiness, we were taught that when we were little; when you smile nothing else matters in that moment. The joy lifts your heart and makes people feel good on the inside. As the mental fatigue grew a shadow figure with white hollow eyes loomed over them. The fatigue grew, staring back at me with an unsettling crooked grin, I had a new mission: I will help them! If the figure shrinks then everything would be normal again, right? Everyone would be smiling because of my actions. Of course I will be happy; how couldn’t I? Tyler will be happy! I suggested we play “Super Mario Galaxy 2” together, maybe I can help him get past World 4? He agreed, he was just on his computer completing his personal goal of retyping the entire King James bible; a distraction from the stress. I happily skipped down the white tiled hallway.
“ Stop skipping you look stupid!” Tyler walked faster, scowling over his shoulder. I knew that face all too well. He would scowl at the mothers who couldn’t control their babies’ crying or tantrums.
I immediately stopped “ Oh”
He sat down on the leather couch sinking into the cushions, he held the wii remote as I quickly turned on the family room fan. Tyler was the protagonist; Mario while I was player 2: a magical little orange star. My job was to hold monsters in place so that he would run past without losing a life. Except there were monsters I couldn’t stop and I wasn’t fast enough to change between multiple. Or I would suggest something that I thought would help us, but most of time it didn’t.
“ You are supposed to stop that enemy! You are so slow!”
“ You thought incorrectly! Why did I follow your stupid opinion! You are so dumb!”
I wanted to stop playing, whenever someone shouted at me I felt tears welling up in my eyes. Tyler is having fun right? He wants to complete World 4, I can endure this. Just keep smiling. Every time I messed up he would make an audible sound like “agh!” or “tch!” Those sounds shuddered my soul. I didn’t notice back then, but the shadow figure grinned when he saw the effect of the sounds on me. We eventually did beat World 4! Tyler smiled, and I felt joy. As if my heart was happily swaying side to side. After Tyler turned off the wii, power-walking back to his computer, I sat on the couch for a moment. I did it! I was so happy! I made Tyler smile!
The jazz became quiet once more, suggesting that the past and present engage in conversation. The csh csh of the cymbal became more relative paired with the sounds of shaking a plastic container of rice grains. Accompanied by a bittersweet piano melody, perfect background music for strolling through a park in the city, cold rain slides down the clear umbrella on a tranquil autumn evening.
The present nods her head to the rhythm, her right hand sways with the piano, she opens her eyes. “AH!” the present jumps, startled.
The past is on her tiptoes invading the present’s space bubble, with wide eyes trying to maintain both balance and eye contact. “ So you still like to make people smile?”
“Long sigh… I do, but it’s no longer my main priority in life.”
“ What about Tyler?” The past turns her head again.
“ I already told you, I don’t know.”
“ But Why not?!” The past pouts, crossing her arms and relaxing back on her heels.
“ We both have our separate lives.”
“But he is our brother…”
“Yeah but you aren’t in charge of other people’s happiness. It’s nice that we value smiles so much but…there are other ways people express happiness.” the present tucks the green strip behind her right ear.
“ But smiles mean happiness don’t they?”
“Yes and no, everyone is different and expresses happiness in different ways. Someone could have a cold stone expression but be enjoying the moment.”
The past thinks for a moment but then realizes..“ Like Tyler?”
“Just like Tyler.”
Did She Mean It?
My best friend moved away in August of 2012, her name was Kathryn. Her mom Mrs. Cheryl was Jamaican, while her father Mr. Jason was a marine.She had short black fluffy hair, uneven bangs, and a wonderful smile. Even now while writing this I am smiling; remembering her smile. We had been friends for three years, her family knew about the shadow figures looming over my mom and brother. We were in the same class, except she was a straight A student. While I was bad in everything except science and religion, that’s okay I’m dumb I would tell myself. I looked up to her, she stood up for what she believed in. She had perfect grades, which I thought I would never achieve. We were best friends but I never hung out with her during recess, who would want to hang out with dumb child who can’t be understood. I saw past the face she showed when helping me with math, I held her inside longer instead of going to recess early. That was the privilege she had as a straight A student, Kathryn would always say it’s okay but I knew her fake smile. I would watch her play on the swings, laughing alongside the other girls in my class. I smiled seeing her happiness, as I sat on the merry-go-round being pushed by the wind. Other than her, the wind was my only friend. She was happy, that’s what mattered. If I went over there, she would sigh annoyed. I don’t want to disturb her break. Isn’t that what you were supposed to do with role models? Give them compliments, express your gratitude to be around them, and don’t disturb them; I thought that at least. A memory resurfaces, her annoyed facial expression as I almost told her mom about Kathryn purposefully shooing me away. Her denial that the statement I made was true, Mrs. Cheryl questioned the obedience of her kid, then I lied; playing it off as something another student did on the slide. My mom said we were best friends, I finally had a best friend. I was so happy. I had only seen best friends on cartoons. I remembered my mom’s words. Why would I snitch on her, destroying her happiness. Even though we had those obstacles during school, we shared similar interests outside of school. Our love for stuffed animals, for Disney, comic books, Marine biology, and old DVDs we found in the library together. The most important one is making Tyler smile, that is something we also shared.
I continued my mission to fight the shadow figure, ignoring its crooked grin whenever I would say “I’m fat.”
Yet I knew that my efforts were not in vain, he was happy. Tyler started enjoying the small jests I would make at TV cliches, jabbing me in the stomach, the fact that his facial expressions and sounds coerce me. My mom didn’t like the comments we made during family movie night, but that’s okay. Tyler was my main priority, I could always make her smile by helping her in the kitchen. Tyler didn’t jab me in the stomach in public, he would pretend then move his hand away. Laughing at me trying to block his attempt. I just gotta keep smiling, look how much he is smiling.
You might be wondering why I didn’t notice or tell someone about this. I didn’t notice since I liked cleaning, I liked not being the center of attention, and I liked helping people. I never valued myself when I was younger, I didn’t have a dream of the future like everyone else. It was easy to scapegoat the phrase “ I don’t know” when talking about the future. This was my mission, actions of pure selflessness. I did tell my mom about this but I was told that “that’s just what brothers do” they tease the youngest. My mindset was that of a child’s ignorance that “ someone who is older than you is always correct.”
Before Kathryn moved Ms. Cheryl received a job offer in New Orleans, she wished for Kathryn, my mom, Tyler, and I to go with her. Kathryn and I were excited about skipping school, and a road trip. We packed our bags into the silver Subaru, grabbed our imaginary creative helmets and snacks.
“ Goodbye America!” I waved to our house, everyone in the car burst out laughing. I did it! I got everyone to laugh at my stupidity!
The trip there was long on the way there. We listened to “SchoolHouse Rock” and told stories about our stuffed animals adventuring through the gas stations, and hotels.I honestly don’t remember the trip there except Kathryn saying “the more fun you have the more time will pass.” We reached the hotel late into the night, 11:00pm was late for an eight year old. The rooms were separate but right next to each other. I flopped onto the pristine white bed, messing up the sheets. I was so happy to sleep next to my mom, with her right next to me Tyler wouldn’t be able to jab me. Her shadow figure was constantly changing between smiling and frowning. I twirled in my sky blue nightgown, innocently pointing out the moon at the window. Leaning against the air conditioning machine, feeling the chilly air stream blow on my chin. Tyler made the “tch” sound, jerking his head away from me. I stopped and curled up in the bed hugging my mom. Hotel breakfast was a dream come true, I was a kid who believed the food was free. The three brands of cereals: Fruit Loops, Raisin Bran, and Frosted Flakes, with more options of milk than the traditional whole milk. Fluffy scrambled eggs, crispy hash browns, and burnt sausages patties. Lastly a waffle maker, this was Tyler’s and Kathryn’s favorite.Then my favorite biscuits and gravy, a true staple of the South. We talked about all the things we wanted to do: go to the aquarium, try beignets, and enjoy the evening jazz performances. We all headed back up to our rooms to get ready for a day of exploration. After I was done trying to braid my own hair, my mom and Ms. Cheryl left to go into the lobby to get more coffee and get a map. Taking care of three kids who were powered by sugar was going to take a lot of caffeine. Kathryn and I were playing rider and horse. She would grab my thick twin braids and pretend that I was a horse. She commonly made me run into walls, but she had a huge grin on her face. Tyler threw his covers over his pillow, giving up on making his bed by himself to join our fun. After leading me into more walls and roughly tugging on the reins Tyler had an epiphany.
“Hey watch this, I can make Madeline move without touching her.” He pretended to jab me several times, but I didn’t budge. I wasn’t going to embarrass myself in front of my best friend. Yet he kept trying till eventually he raised his arm far back swiftly scooping up to jab me. It looked so real I flinched, bringing my arms up to block him, he never touched me.
Tyler laughed “finally”
“That was funny!” Kathryn laughed.
I wanted to cry, I failed, I humiliated myself in front of Kathryn. I smiled instead laughing along with them “ I’m so slow”. As Ms. Cheryl and my mom returned, I stared bewildered at Kathryn as she slipped on her sandals. I was in the process of understanding her comment. Maybe she was conforming with Tyler to make him happy? Or did she really mean those words?
The bittersweet melody picks back up, as the past shrinks down into herself. The past looks up towards the present but jolts her head away. The present crawls over to sit on the right side of the past, placing her left arm around the past. Now he has truly taken effect.
“I had forgotten this happened or more of Kathryn’s words.” The present squeezes the past’s waist, an instinctive shaky hand jolts up to stop it.
“ Why? Could I really be that forgetful in the present?”
“ A lot of things constantly happen in the present moment, I don’t have the time to dwell on my past mistakes.”
“ But they are mistakes…OUR mistakes. Things that shouldn’t be forgiven without an apology.”
“ Hey now what did I say about bananas and saying sorry. Hmmmm?” The present slowly gestures her head up. “ No, I meant that her words don’t bother me.”
“ But it’s Kathryn, your best friend!”
“ True, but you can’t let every negative opinion affect you though, or you’ll turn into a dehydrated shriveled up clump of anxiety. ”
“ What do you mean?”
“ Just keep what I said at the back of your mind.”
“ Okay, but did Kathryn mean that comment?” The past raises her head up a little more, innocently curious.
“ No, she was just agreeing with Tyler since she had a crush on him but you should have remembered that. Who has the bad memory now?” The present smirks, holding her head high. “You were just overthinking what your future actions would be to make her smile.”
The past turns her head to avoid eye contact “ Does love make you go against your best friend?”
“Not particularly, but love makes you want to agree or be with that person. Or generally strange things. That’s just my experience with it and I don’t have much.” The present shrugs.
“ You’ve been in love before?!”
“ We are getting off topic here, but you know who you should love?”
“Mama! Tyler! Grandma!” The past is rapidly shouting out names.
“ Wrong, you forgot yourself.” The present pointed up as the past scooched away.
It is 2015 we had finished moving across the bridge to be closer to Tyler’s piano teacher. Closer to the city, closer to Tyler’s favorite location; the beach which I hated. The itchy sand that would find its way into every nook and cranny, the constant concern of the microscopic sand crabs climbing into my ear. I hate sand. I had to transfer onto K-12 online learning, I could make Tyler happy every day being homeschooled. Why wasn’t I happy? I hope no one noticed, I just have to keep smiling. My mom, Tyler and I crossed the bridge, avoiding the highway, to my grandparents house to celebrate the tenth 1st place trophy Tyler had just recently won. My grandparents had a big house with a large white pillar that was fun to spin around. No running through the halls, in case of scratching the ground with our shoes or breaking the glass dolphin table. My grandma made a chocolate cake since that was a general favorite for everyone. With a powdered sugar filled chocolate gauche covering a moist cake that melted in your mouth. Tyler was more of a lemon fan, no wonder the day didn’t start off right. Everything needed to be perfect, we were celebrating him after all. And who wouldn’t want to celebrate him? He was a straight A student, he was in the possession of many 1st place trophies for the musical genius that he was, and his smile grew brighter everyday. I’m okay there’s nothing much about me, as long as Tyler is happy I am to.Tyler and I brought our swimsuits over, I hoped that we could play in the pool like we used to. I would become the strong one, able to lift Tyler up in the water carrying him like a baby. We arrived, with hugs and general questions like: how are you? How is school? How are the dogs? After some chit-chat of Tyler’s achievements and his future. I observed his patterns and what questions made him smile, this was becoming boring. Boring is good isn’t it? All the patterns turn into automatic choices. Predicting his actions became a game, watching the shadow figure grin from the praise and attention he received. Nothing could go wrong, I became a broken record; repetition. I knew that I shouldn’t eat much of the Cheetos so then he could have more. I knew that if I danced or sang it would annoy him. I already knew who everyone’s favorite child was, there’s no reason to put myself out in the world. Stay in line, Madeline, stay in line. I snapped back to reality and no one noticed, excellent. Tyler rushed to the bathroom and I joined him in separate bathrooms to change into our swimsuits. We quickly fast-walked to have the biggest cannon-ball into the pool. I looked into the pool toy box for my swimming goggles, snorkel, and flippers. I found my goggles but I was scared of digging deeper in case a snake was hiding amongst the pool noodles. Tyler and I raced against each other, he jabbed me in the stomach a couple times, and we pestered our mom to join us. We played volleyball between two people, but Tyler was bored with my failing passes.
Tyler made the same “agh” sound each time I missed.
Eventually he got out of the pool. I knew it, I upset him and he became bored. I wanted to continue this awkward game of volleyball but all I could do was fail. Tyler got out, and grabbed his towel. He sat on the metal chairs in the shade, his legs were spread out, he was hunched over, tapping his fingers against his left knee, staring directly at me. Like an owl observing its prey. As I pretended that I was a mermaid his glare pierced my soul. It’s fine though my stupid imagination deserves judgment it must be incorrect, I thought. The shadow figure yawned. Suddenly Tyler stood up walking over to the pool toy box, he pulled a water gun out. This wasn’t a tiny pew pew constantly refilling water gun, this was a FiGoal four nozzle water gun. Four nozzles shaped in a diamond, with slider gage to build up the pressure of the water stream. Tyler gathered the beach balls and pool noodles crowding the edge of the pool, out of my range of reach. I dove under water, what was he planning this time. I came up to take a breath but he sprayed me. I should have just stepped out of the pool, but the cycle would’ve never broken. No matter where I swam he would watch me patiently waiting for me to resurface before spraying. Each time I dove under Tyler would frantically pump up the pressure, just like him shaking the wii remote to win a race. When he had to refill he would grab a pool noodle or beach ball chucking them at me. I would try to hide behind the beach balls he threw but Tyler simply fast walked to the other side to spray me. This is a day of celebration, I just have to endure it a little bit longer. I know mom will come to announce that dinner is ready any minute now… Right?
Before this day I loved going underwater, pretending like I could see imaginary marine life that I studied become my friends. The pressure of the water encapsulated me but it felt like a cold hug. I never imagined that I would have this experience today. Tyler is laughing though, taunting me but smiling. A game of whack-a-mole except that I needed oxygen.
I pleaded with Tyler several times to stop but he never did. When I was little I never knew how to shout, or scream. My voice was too quiet, no one could understand me anyways there was no point. I don’t know how long he did this, that wasn’t my priority. There were times I wanted to stay underwater, not resurface. Stay under this protective layer, no one could hurt me. Or maybe a thick layer of ice could miraculously settle on top, I would be able to see him but he could not spray me. This could never happen with the humidity and heat of Florida. Suddenly my instinct was kicking my mind, “go up for air!” Of course! My mission isn’t over yet…….when will it be?
I can’t keep doing this… as I dove under again.What if I tried just this once? to yell?
“Stop” I said in-between gasping for air, a pool noodle slammed against my forehead. I dove under again.
“Stop” I retried, he continued to laugh. I kept trying for four more times, till finally I felt a swirling blindness build up in my soul.
“STOP IT!” I shouted, he stopped still moving his hand to the taking aim. The shadow figure grimaces, I continued “ Stop it! You are hurting me!” He put down the beach ball and walked inside.
An unsettling silence flooded the area.
As I stood there, breathing through my mouth, gripping onto the wall avoiding the line of fire ants, finally taking off my fogged up mask. I patiently watched the door waiting for his return. I had a moment to myself my mind would not be quiet as a million thoughts filled my mind. Wait! Why did I add the last part? I am not hurt, I just have a headache. This is normal for Florida weather. Is this what people always say selfishness is? I hate it, why did I do that?! Wasn’t my mission to make him smile not the opposite. No! I did it, I sinned! I disobeyed my 3rd grade teacher’s word to never portray selfishness. As both a religious, perfectionist, and obedient kid getting in trouble was the worst thing for me. Even if I was no longer in 3rd grade, I thought somehow she was going to come for me. There must have been a reason for those rumors called her “the silent but deadly Ms.Smith” right? Tyler never did come back in so I went in looking for him. He was crying in the bathroom surrounded by my mom and grandma. My grandma glared at me, making the same “ tch”. I ran to the guest bedroom, slamming the door.
Locking myself in the closet to pray: “ PLEASE! Change back time! I made a mistake!! PLEASE!!” I begged, crying to myself.
My mom eventually came in, gently asking me to come out again. I ruined everything! My heart felt heavy, as I sat next to Tyler eating dinner. Nothing else mattered except my mistakes, this anchor dragging my soul down to depths. The next morning I tried to revert back to how I was before calling myself dumb, fat, and stupid but Tyler avoided me. Locking himself in his room, not smiling. I cried under a blanket, I didn’t want this.
The soft jazz picks up into a major key, swaying with the other instruments gearing up for a final loud ending. The present is slowly rubbing the spine of the past. The past has her knees up to her forehead.
“ You know what I am going to say right?” The present retucks the green strip.
“Don’t dwell on your past mistakes?” The past mumbled in a dull monotone voice.
“Nope, Wrong! Good job! You broke the cycle.”
“I never wanted this though”
“But you needed it.” The present winks.
“ No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did, I know deep down in your heart you wanted to be free and to try new things again without the constant worry of Tyler’s happiness.” The present gently taps the past’s scalp when saying ‘heart’. The past digs her head deeper into her lap. “Tyler still tries, you do fall for it a couple times except more recently. A few months ago Tyler scowled at me once more making that “tch” sound. I said to his face that the trick doesn’t work on me anymore. His reaction was priceless; he pouted like a kid who was told no to getting a cookie.”
“Really you said that to him?”
“Of course! I no longer have to watch over him. I have no regrets with my past mistakes. His actions are his own, not mine, they don’t define me. I am in control of my life.”
“I don’t understand but thank you for this conversation.”
“ Of course, also thank you for this… self reflection I needed this.” The present twists the twin braids together. The present and past truly smile thinking of what will happen in their futures.