Stella stepped into the room where she’d lost herself, the last place she remembered being the girl she remembered before she became… this, whatever this was.
She looked into the mirror she’d looked into so often over those years and the face looking back at her looked nothing like the face she’d looked at just that morning in a different mirror in a hotel room not far from this place, this place she’d vowed never to set foot in again. The face looking back at her held an innocence she couldn’t remember ever feeling, but must have. The jaded face she’d looked at earlier felt more disconnected than even this innocent face.
She turned away from the mirror and walked around the sparsely furnished room. An old metal bed frame leaned against the wall. She remembered putting that bed, or at least one very much like it, together each Fall semester. She noted the bed was too damaged to put together anymore. There was no mattress. She hoped the mattress she’d slept on had been burned to ashes or shredded into confetti-sized pieces. Anything to destroy the memories it held.
She looked toward the built-in shelves she’d so carefully displayed her life on in those days. The built-in dressers that had housed her clothing, dishes, and odds and ends now stood as empty as they were at the beginning of each school year. Everything she owned, with the exception of her car, contained in this small room. Somehow it felt smaller than it had then.
She blinked back a tear and opened the closet doors. Looking inside she saw nothing but an empty rod and a shelf in each. Even the racks on the doors where she’d hung her towels were gone. It felt oddly like her room and not like her room.
It was nothing like she remembered and yet still felt so familiar. So much had happened between these four walls. Her entire life had changed between these four walls. Her faith in people had been demolished between these four walls. Her sense of self had been lost between these four walls.
She walked to the window and stared out at a mostly empty parking lot and the buildings in the distance. Trees dotting the landscape blocked views she’d easily seen all those years ago. She let her mind wander back to the days when she’d embraced this room, when she’d felt like life was a huge adventure just waiting for her to explore, when she’d felt like nothing could ever stop her.
She remembered happy moments and making friends. She remembered laughter and silliness. She remembered music and dancing. She remembered relationships lost and gained. She remembered studying until she fell asleep on her books and waking up with her highlighter in her hair. She remembered her excitement over having her own life.
She didn’t want to remember that, but how could she not? That moment had defined her for so very long. That moment when she felt friendly hands turn to unwelcome touches, when her pleas for him to stop had been ignored, when her tears were laughed at… when her best friend turned worst foe.
She felt a tear slide down her cheek and looked back toward the mirror again and saw both her faces reflected back at her. She loved the girl she’d been. She loved the woman she’d become. Yet somehow between the two was a woman she couldn’t bear to look in the eye, a woman she didn’t recognize, a woman she almost hated.
Stella sighed, turned the key over in her hand, turned back to the window one last time. Life had a way of taking you along for the ride whether you were ready or not. Hers certainly had never stopped long enough to let her catch up to it. Life didn’t stop when she felt like she couldn’t take another step forward. So many days in a daze that left her uncertain of her past or her present or her future. She’d cried far too many tears over what she’d lost until she’d found her footing and stopped letting fear rule her every single move.
It wasn’t always easy and often she still fought her old demons. The anxiety, the fear, the inability to trust popped back into her life and created havoc. At least these days, she saw it before it completely destroyed her, right?
Sometimes it felt like she was only fooling herself.
With her hand on the window, she leaned forward and touched her forehead to the cold glass and let her tears flow freely. Her body wracked with sobs and her nose ran, but she didn’t stop to check her ugly release. She didn’t care.
She’d come here to face her past and experience whatever that brought up. So she would. She sank to the floor and looked up.
Four walls surrounded her. It had been home. Then it had felt like a prison.
Now she looked around as the tears flowed and she released the part of her this room had stolen. It suddenly just felt like four walls. She thought of all the people who’d lived in this room since she had. She thought of how they all had their own stories, too… Some good, some bad, but each feeling deeply personal and probably somehow still universal.
She’d always thought of this room as hers, but all those bodies, all those personalities, all those people who had moved through it before and after her had made her one of a crowd. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and hoped each of them had more good experiences than bad ones in this room. She hoped none of them experienced that one bad moment that tainted all the good ones for all time.
Ten minutes later she passed the demolition crew as the wrecking ball made contact with the building, she wiped away her tears, straightened her shoulders, and didn’t even bother to glance over her shoulder.
Inside those four walls, she’d found the girl she was inside the woman she’d become and in doing so had freed them both from a prison they’d never deserved to inhabit.
Originally published in the short story collection,Take a Change & Other Stories of Starting Over.