A Second Spring by Æsa Strand Viðarsdóttir

“And look!” he continues, pulling me along the gravel path. “See? The bench we used to sit on. Remember? In the shade. Because the sun burns your skin so easily.”

I nod, even if I don’t really remember. It feels familiar though, the whole park does, but in the way that everything feels like it’s on repeat; if not experienced in person, then from photographs or films. My body might recognise the bench as I sit down, but whether it is this particular one it remembers or just the shape of so many other benches used through its lifetime, I can’t tell. The fresh spring air is equally familiar, with the dull aching smell of winter just gone, and summer’s ripe sweetness waiting in the wings.  An echo of other springs I know I’ve lived, even if they’re forgotten.

He holds onto my hand, turning it over so that he can stroke the palm with his thumb. It tickles but I keep still, indulging him with a smile when he looks up, oh so hopeful. His eyes are grey with a touch of light blue, like the sky in the early morning before the sun has had time to bring all the colours to the surface. If he smiled, there would be crow’s feet by those eyes. I can tell by the shallow scratches in the pale skin that are still visible even now when he is so serious. He tells me he is thirty-five, but in this moment he looks so much younger. I, on the other hand, feel very old, despite my life having just started.

“You always joked about having a short lifeline,” he says with a hollow laugh. I have a feeling he used to laugh very differently, out loud and bright, with twinkling eyes and his face split by two rows of shiny white teeth. “Maybe this is what it meant. Not an early end but a late new beginning.”

“Maybe.” I look down at my hand, slack in his hand, his fingers slightly curled around my fingers. I wonder which line he is referring to.

“Can’t we just …” He sighs and looks away, his thumb still stroking my palm in tiny circles, round and round. The move seems practiced, a habit borne of days spent like this, holding hands in the sun while sharing thoughts I can no longer recall. “Can’t we just do that?” he finally continues. “Start over? Make our own new beginning?”

“I don’t even know you,” I remind him gently.

“But you will,” he insists. “We fell in love once. We will do it again. Just give it time.”

I look at him. He is handsome. And sweet. And so very patient. And I am …

Well, I don’t know. Pretty enough, I guess, until you notice the knotted line that runs along my scalp like a red snake.  I am shorter than I expected to be the first time I looked in the mirror. Thinner, as well. Bottom line, all I know about myself is what I see. What lies beneath the surface, trapped inside this skin, these bones, this confused heart and this broken head? What is my character? Who am I, not only to other people, but to me? And how can I love another person if I don’t know the person I am?

I have no other family. That is what they tell me. My parents died when I was very young. There was just me left; me and my grandmother. She is gone now, too. Sometimes I think I can feel a small hand in mine, like a ghost child walking beside me. Maybe I used to have a little brother or sister. Maybe I just helped a lost child find their way home. Maybe the child is me. I don’t know. I just know that if I leave him, I will be on my own. Still …

“I need to figure out who I am,” I tell him. “I don’t think I can do that with you.”

“Why not?” he asks. His thumb has gone still, his grip on my hand tight.

“Because you want me to see who I was,” I explain. “And I want to see who I am. To be able to do that I need a mirror, not a photograph.”

He lets go of me and pulls his hand to his lap. Angry. Hurt. “You say that like you’re two different people. They’re both you.”

I close my eyes for a second and breathe. When I open them again he is sitting hunched forward, elbows on knees, wringing his hands. I can feel him trembling, small shudders of laboured breath that play his tense body like a cello. His eyes are fixed on the ground.

“No,” I say, keeping my voice calm and gentle. After all, none of this is his fault. “One is your version of me. An imprint of who I was before. A memory of me as an adult; when really, I have just been born. We might bear the same genes, but I wasn’t moulded by that person’s experiences. And I never will be.”

He straightens up and turns to me, a frantic look in his eyes. “You don’t know –” he starts and I cut in.

“I have no idea who I will become. Or who I will love.” I pause, not wanting to be cruel, but he keeps gazing at me, waiting, hoping, and I realise there is no other way. “It might be you,” I say, “but it might just as well be someone else.”

He recoils, his eyes wrenching away from mine. He opens his mouth then closes it again, swallowing repeatedly. “This was supposed to be our summer,” he says finally, voice hoarse, and stands up. I watch him walk away, head bowed, hands thrust deep in his pockets.

I remain sitting, heart pounding with terror, excitement firing up my veins. This is it. I am on my own. I feel sorry for him, I do, but he is not my responsibility. Only I am. Maybe this was supposed to be our summer but now it is my spring.

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