I wander down an aisle, staring aimlessly at the dairy free milk. Soy, almond, rice, so much choice it is confusing to know which to buy. They are in rectangular cartons and offer the promise of a healthy alternative. They are different to the milk I remember, the plastic bottle with a handle, fitting perfectly into the shelf attached to the fridge door. And its creamy taste, filling you up on a morning and sending you to sleep at night. According to the list in between my fingers, I am intolerant. It happens as you get older and must choose one of these.
I place my hand over a carton of rice milk, standing alone on a middle shelf. Its bright colours are attractive and I love rice, it’s a sensible choice.
It’s my name, but the man standing a metre away from me is unrecognisable. Perhaps it wasn’t him calling me. I turn a one-eighty past the diary free biscuits and soy yoghurts until to my eyeline is level with the self-service checkouts. The aisle is empty, and it is only a mother and her child paying for their shopping.
“Gemma.” He repeats.
I shift my gaze back in his direction, and he shuffles closer. His eyes are blue like the ocean on a calm day and flickers of white dance inside his irises. His lips are bulky, enormous almost, and his cheek-bones are pointy and creep out of his skin. He is my age, his crinkly eye sockets and the creases on forehead tell me so.
Dan, yes Dan, I remember a Dan. A Dan from school, I think.
“You are shopping?”
“Yes, I cannot drink milk, so I need to choose an alternative.” I hover the container of rice milk in front of his face and Dan nods his head in encouragement.
“Do you remember me?” He asks. His bottom lip shivers and his eyes droop into their lower lids. My mother often looks like this. She tells me it is because she is sad and she struggles with life. Poor Dan, he must have similar issues.
“I am looking for bread, do you know where it is?” I ask, harmlessly ignoring his question.
“Sure, I can take you there.”
He offers me his arm. I take notice of his gesture, moving towards his exposed hand, but as soon as I reach for it, he hides it behind his back.
“Sorry.” He stutters.
I shrug my shoulders. It is hard to understand people’s actions. I find shopping difficult but people are strange, I can never figure them out.
We keep a distant away from each other and amble through the supermarket, past the confectionary section and wine and beer aisles until we enter a spacious part of the building. Stacks of bread, some wrapped in plastic and others concealed inside glass containers, are scattered around shelves.
“Wow lots of choice.” I grin.
“I would go for the wholemeal.” He points to a sign describing its loafs as ‘delightfully delicious.’ Like the rice milk, its bright colours draw me in and I grab two, shoving them into my basket.
“Dan,” I ask. “Do you think you could help me at the counter? I struggle with understanding money?”
Dan stares at me. His eyes are wide, swallowing up the white around them.
He leads me towards a till where a large silver-haired lady sits on a chair with wheels. She is quick at her job and my items of shopping shoot down the conveyor belt.
“Twenty pound fifty.” The silver-haired lady shouts. Her voice is firm, and she refuses to look at me. I get it, the numbers on the till glow and I would prefer to stare at them.
I open my purse and pull out a selection of coins. A five-pound note falls on the floor. Dan reaches down to pick it up, placing it in my hand as he resurfaces. The checkout lady is unamused, she grumbles at the time I take to hand over the money and pack my items. Dan growls at her, his face turning red.
“Are you okay?’’ I ask.
“People are just so rude; they have no idea what’s going on in others’ lives.”
Dan moves his hand to my shoulder and rubs my back with his fingers. I am not used to people touching me and I flinch. He doesn’t stop and I don’t ask him to. There is a warmth in this action and it ignites something inside me, like a flutter of electricity is tickling me.
“Do you want a ride home?” Dan asks, his fingers remaining on my back.
“My parents have told me not to travel in cars with people I don’t know.”
Dan removes his hand and his eyes falls to the floor. He is upset; not like he was upset with the silver-haired lady, but like my mother gets upset.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
I shake my head. “I am sorry I don’t remember much before the accident. I think we went to school together, but I am not sure.”
“Can I walk you home at least?” Dan returns to my face. A tear leaves his eyes and I observe it slide down his cheek, landing on his chest and sinking into his beating heart.
“Yes, I would like that.”
We wander down the main street. Cars and buses drive by, and people coming from different directions hurry past. Life is busy and is always accompanied by noise. I prefer the quiet, listening to only your heartbeat. And I like stillness where everything stops and you have time to enjoy the sensation of air moving through your lungs, and back into the atmosphere.
The day is a confusing day. Sunlight rests on our faces, but a cruel breeze forces our hair to move. Dan does not have as much as me, and his auburn strands with dusts of grey only sway in the gusts. My thick mane gets cast across my face before returning to behind my ear and then to my shoulder.
“We did go to school together.” Dan says, releasing a sigh. “You were actually my girlfriend at school.”
I slower my pace, barely moving my feet. A tightness forms in the top of my throat and my breath becomes heavy. I know little about my life before the accident, my mind is unable to remember and every time I ask my parents, my mother weeps and my father ignores me.
“What was I like at school?”
I whisper my question, hoping the words get lost amongst the drafts of air and busyness of the road, but Dan replies as if I screamed at him.
“You were perfect.”
He pulls out his wallet from his back pocket and I stare at its interior. Shiny cards, tattered receipts and inside the netted section, pictures. The top picture is of two girls dressed in uniform, with pigtails, hair bands and rosy faces. Dan must have children, most people do.
“This was us.”
He gives me a series of photographs. It’s me, you can tell by my button nose and dimpled chin. It is a youthful me, I have bangs and stick my tongue like it's part of my lips and Dan holds me, kissing me in all but a few pictures.
“Do you remember?”
I shake my head. The doctors have repeatedly told me memories from my youth and childhood have been erased. I may remember smells, places I visited and familiar faces, but never events. When you hit your head so hard and glass shatters your skin, piercing through the flesh protecting your skull, memories get displaced, they disappear. Birthdays, Christmas holidays, my Nanas funeral and my first day at school and university are permanently removed. The doctor advises making new memories, but I have lost emotions and learnt behaviour. I am a child locked in an adult body, living in a world that doesn’t understand.
The photographs do not belong to me and the longer they are in my hand the more I feel like a fraud. My fingers work quickly and push them back to Dan.
“Do you not want them?”
“No, thank you.”
“How about one photograph?”
We are in a photo booth, just the two of us. My hand rests on Dans face, my thumb touches his lips. Our heads are locked together and our hair is intertwined but it is the smile that shows how happy we are. It reaches our eyes brightening his blue irises and my adding hints of gold to mine.
“Thank you, Dan.” I put the photo in my pocket next to my shopping list. I will destroy it later, without him watching me.
“Can I tell you about the day I asked you out?”
Dan’s company is exhausting, my legs are struggling, my brain is craving for silence but he has been kind to me and I nod my head.
“You were new to school and all the boys fancied you. We would talk about your legs, how they reminded us of catwalk models. Long, lean, perfect…..It was a dare, Jim my best mate, he said if I asked you out, he would give me his bike. It was a BMX, brand new. My parents were poor and we could never afford anything like that….You were sat on a bench in the playground, your hair platted at one side. It showed off your neck and your cute ears. You were engrossed in a book, strange most of the girls preferred their phones. I remember sweat was dripping from my forehead. I went up to you and blurted it out. You asked me to repeat myself. Apparently, I made no sense. I could hear Jim laughing. I didn’t care, you were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Of course, you said no, but now you knew who I was and I would not stop trying.”
I should be flattered or at least feel something, but they are just words to me. Words without images and feelings. I can see it on television, the soap operas my mother watches and the romance novels she reads, but it never happened to me. Dan is a stranger like teenage Gemma is a stranger.
I quicken my step, desperate for my house to save from this man who claims to know me. Dan’s eyes burn my skin, they press against my face.
“Are you okay?” He reaches out to touch me but this time I stop him, jumping quickly into a wall.
“I need to get home, I am sorry.”
“Okay, I will leave now but before I do, can I hold you just for a second.”
It is an unusual request, but I allow it to happen. I stop moving, staying completely still. At first, he grips me, squeezing me tight like I have seen mothers hugging their children. He lets go for a moment, only to return with the tips of his fingers. They massage the bones in my back and his nails graze my flesh. I close my eyes and pay attention to his breath lingering through my hair and the way my nose traps his woody scent. I try to fight it, but the feeling of electricity tickling my insides returns and, in his arms, I whimper.
“I should really get home.” I pull away from Dan. My eyes stay with the ground but as I am turning, heading the opposite direction to him I flash him a glance.
He is beautiful, a tall man with the prettiest eyes. How lucky teenage Gemma was to have had him as her boyfriend.