“Can I take your order, hon?” she asked, smiling at me.
She was a new waitress. I didn’t recognize her, though I was sure I knew everybody in that small diner on Redlands Boulevard. She was a middle-aged woman with hair graying at the roots. I smiled back after reading her nametag and confirming that I did not, in fact, know her. I turned, in the booth, opening my mouth to order. That’s when she had her moment. The moment that everyone who meets me has. She stared at my face, eyes widening, then realizing how she’d reacted, seemed horrified. Keeping her gaze firmly on her notepad, she took my order, and walked away. After watching her disappear into the kitchen, I looked out the window, attempting to forget about her reaction. However, the dark night ensured that the only thing I saw was the one thing I did not want to see. My reflection.
Three years ago, I was caught in the middle of an acid attack while vacationing in the Czech Republic. I didn’t remember anything from the attack. The doctors who treated me were the ones who filled me in. I would regain my memory with time, they told me. Time to process the trauma. I wasn’t the target, just an unlucky witness, they said. The flesh on half of my left cheek had been damaged, but other than that, I’d gotten out unscathed. Compared to the target, I was fortunate. The acid almost killed her, and she’d lost an eye. However, the target was hospitalized. I was out and about in the world. Dealing with the stares and the sympathy, all of it. I went through pain every day too.
The sound of the plate jolted me out of my thoughts. I looked up, expecting to see the woman. Instead, I saw a man. A waiter who I’d seen many times, one of my best friends. His face had cracked into a big grin.
“Hey, Neal. How’re you doing?” I asked him. The corners of his bright eyes crinkled.
“I’m great Charlotte, what about you?”
“Same old, same old,” I told him.
Nodding and still grinning, Neal walked away. After devouring my food and waving goodbye to all my friends in the waitstaff, I stepped out into the hot August night of Southern California. Being a student at the University of La Verne, College of Law, I suppose I did prefer summer because of the break, but I had always been more of a winter person. My car, a white pickup truck, stood tall and lonesome in the moonlight. I climbed in and drove home. My phone rang, but I did not pick it up. After a short drive, I unlocked the door to my loft, ready to get in bed. Suddenly, my head snapped up. My heart was racing. I had a feeling I wasn’t alone. I could hear my heart beating faster with every passing second. That’s when I saw her. Suddenly, I felt my knees giving out and I was on the floor. The last thing I remembered before blacking out was her face.
Every day for the past three years, I’ve had the same nightmare. A man throwing acid at his target, and her face morphing into the face of every prominent female in my life: my mom, my sister, my best friend, me, everyone. The target, the actual victim, was named Alexandria. I’d seen pictures of her and read newspaper clippings about the acid attack. I’d tried to get in touch with her so many times, winding up with nothing to credit my efforts through it all. Eventually, I gave up. Now, opening my eyes, I saw that very woman sitting across from me. Of course, I had fainted.
I snapped up to find that I was sitting in a hospital bed.
“Hello,” her soft voice startled me.
“What’re you doing here?” I whispered. Her face was disfigured, and I could not bear it. I kept my eyes far from her.
“I flew to America from the Czech Republic to speak to you. As for your loft, your sister let me in, so we could talk. Only before I got to explain yesterday, you fainted,” she said, her accent heavy, the tone serving as a reminder that this wasn’t a nightmare.
I thought of my sister, Emma. She had come by yesterday while I was out to drop something off. I just didn’t realize that by something, she meant someone. I looked up at Alexandria. She was watching me intently, almost as if she were studying me.
“I’ve been blacked out, and in the hospital one whole day?” I asked. She nodded. “I’ve tried to contact you …” I started, trailing off.
“I know, I’m here to thank you,” she said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Excuse me?” I asked her, confused.
“You saved my life so, thank you,” she repeated, looking slightly irritated now.
“What? I-I didn’t save anybody’s life. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Just then, an attendant walked into my room.
“Okay,” he said. “Charlotte Edwards?” he asked, looking at his clipboard. I looked up and gave a little wave, grimacing in an effort to smile. “You’re free to go,” he said. Then, seeing my cheek and Alexandria’s face, his face reverted to the sympathetic expression people assume in my company. He left with the closing remark, “You two keep fighting okay?”
The door didn’t make a sound as it shut behind him.
“Ugh,” said Alexandria, as the door shut.
“You too with the sympathy?” I asked and watched her nod.
“We should talk,” she drew out slowly, “We really should talk ….”
After I put on regular clothes and got out of the hospital, Alexandria and I drove to my diner. Tucked away in our corner of the world in that diner, Alexandria told me her story, her memories of the night that I could not remember at all.
“I had rejected a marriage proposal from Marko, a horrible man, about two weeks before the incident. I didn’t love him, what could I do? Then, after my rejection, he threatened my family and my friends with his brother. I made a bad decision, blinded by my anger. I again chose not to marry him. That day, Marko vowed to get revenge. Two weeks later, Marko threw acid at me. I remember the moment distinctly, Marko emptying the bottle out on me, skin on fire, no use screaming for help. However, suddenly out of nowhere, when I was sure I couldn’t take it anymore, I was going to die, someone jumped out in front of me.” She paused; her eye looked watery, but she was calm. She was tearing up, but she did not lose her composure. After a moment, she shook her head and continued. “It was you. You took the last of acid for me. I got lucky. If he had emptied that whole bottle out on me … I think I would’ve died.” Alexandria said, mumbling. “You saved my life, so thank you.”
She looked up at me, staring intently once again, waiting for my reaction. My mind was working at an impossibly fast rate, processing all the information.
“No.” I said, ever so calmly. Alexandria looked at me, taken aback.
“Sorry, um, what?” she asked quietly.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no … you- you are a liar.” My emotions had gone from zero to one hundred too quickly.
I leapt to my feet, “I was an unlucky witness, I did not ruin my own life. Tell me I did not ruin my own life,” I muttered, hands running through my hair. Everyone was looking at me now, but, for once, I did not care. “No, I did not bring this upon myself, I did not do this, I was just an unlucky, innocent bystander! You liar. I didn’t ruin everything to play hero,” I screamed, chest heaving. My vision was blurred by the fast-coming tears. I ran outside, leaving the diner and the mess I made behind. I reached my car, climbed into the backseat, and I sat there crying, body wracked with sobs, still in denial.
The car door opened. She reached in and took my hand. We just stayed like that for a while. Her holding my hand as I cried in the backseat of my truck. After what seemed like an eternity, I stopped and looked up at her.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
“It’s fine, you were in shock,” she replied. Sniffing, I got out of my car and gave Alexandria a hug. She was one of the strongest people I knew.
“It’s just been a rough day. Let’s go home.” I said. She looked at me, understanding, and nodded. With that, we drove off, leaving everything behind.
A few days later, I was on the tennis court with my best friends, Jenny and Leah. Alexandria was on the side, cheering us on. I had gotten over my initial shock, accepted her gratitude, and heard her story. I was ready to just have fun for the rest of her stay in the country. Leah served the ball into my court. I returned it with force. Jenny ran and hit the ball, but instead of going into my court, it rushed right at Alexandria. I panicked for a moment. She was facing the fence, and because of her dysfunctional eye, she wouldn’t see the tennis ball. Something in me flared up as I realized it could hit her. I didn’t want her to get hurt and I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. I needed to help her. These thoughts sounded loudly in my head, and I ran towards her and the ball. I didn’t get there in time. However, Alexandria was fine. I was wrong. She could see the tennis ball, and she dodged it. I, on the other hand, was not fine.
It began with a thought. Then, it felt as though I were going on a journey in my mind, all to look behind what seemed like a hidden wall. A green shirt, I was wearing a green shirt. Pain, desperation, the feeling of fire against my skin, all intricately woven together in the experience that is memory. I was on a run, and I saw what was happening. I was running, running towards her, wanting to save her from the acid and stop her pain. I couldn’t stand there and watch. I needed to reach her, and when I did, I would help her. Just like that. It was that simple. The dam had been breached and the memories came flooding back to me. As I snapped back to reality, I felt my friends crowded around me, all looking very worried. I looked up at Alexandria, and the look of realization dawned upon her face. Then, on that tennis court, I whispered the words I never thought I would.
“I remember …”
My badge gleamed in the moonlight, reminding me of all my hard work. A year had passed since the day on the tennis court where I remembered the most traumatic experience of my life. Throughout a year of therapy and healing, a year of change, now when I relived the memories, they weren’t too painful. I still noticed the stares and had a deformed cheek, but I also had closure. I can’t help thinking, maybe it was fate. In December last year, I dropped out of law school to become a police officer. I realized I had a calling to help people. It wasn’t stupidity. Looking within, it’s who I was all along. I was so much more than just an ugly woman. I was a hero. I was proud of myself. Now, sitting in the diner with Alexandria visiting again, I looked out the window. Night had already fallen, so I saw the something that didn’t bother me anymore. My reflection.