They say that memories define us. That they form our personality and make us who we are. They do. I know better than most.
They also say that memories change with time. Altered, morphed, and distorted by our daily experiences, twisted by our fragile mind, shattered by our ability to forget, therefore concealing their undiluted essence.
Is this a weakness? A product of the imperfection of our mind? Who knows…
Then again, what if it all serves a purpose? What if the human brain knows exactly what it wants us to remember for our own protection?
I wish what they say was true. I wish time would have changed my memories. I wish I wouldn’t remember, but I do.
I remember every single detail of these twenty-one minutes, crystal-clear as if it happened yesterday. The longest, dirtiest, and most painful twenty-one minutes in my life, starting with him opening the door to my room to leaving me drowning in shame.
A time span that felt like a small forever…
And twenty-one minutes was all it took to destroy my soul.
My white bedsheets with the washed-out stains of tomato sauce. The rhythmic thump of the headboard rattling against the wall. The belt buckle scraping the back of my thigh. The stale breath of beer. The TV screen throwing streaks of light over my fisted hands. The black Nike T-Shirt I bought two days earlier, now scrunched up around my waist and constricting my skin. The digital clock on my nightstand, the one my mother bought on our visit to Barcelona, displaying a picture of the two of us in front of the Pablo Picasso Museum.
It’s all there—branded into my mind for eternity.
Over the last five years, I’ve mastered the art of locking any thoughts of that fateful night in a mental vault where they stay put most of the time, but sometimes they crawl out of my carefully crafted fortress. This happens mostly in crowded places where people stand behind me, and I feel their breaths on my neck or their hands close by.
It’s also one of the reasons I chose a job to work at night, so I always get a free spot in the last row on the bus, and no one can linger behind me. I prepare my sandwich at home instead of going to the bakery to avoid waiting in line and getting trapped in a queue. I buy my stuff online instead of going to a shopping mall to evade civilization. My office desk is positioned in the farthest corner next to the wall so I can watch everything that goes on around me.
Remember when Sam found out that Matthew planned to propose to Jillian, and Kendra wanted us to go out for one night? It was terrible. Eventually, I ended up on the porch drawing a girl who was so drunk she was lolling on the ground, mouth wide open and drooling on her dress. When I finished, I folded the paper and stuck it into her purse. I would love to have seen her face when she found it the next day.
Anyway, the only ones who don’t set my nerves on edge when they invade my comfort zone are the girls—Kendra, Sam, Ruby, and Skyla. Oh, and there’s Zach, my piercer and tattoo artist. Totally harmless. Might also have to do with the fact that he’s gay and in a steady relationship with Kendra’s hairdresser, so I think I’m on the safe with him.
Apart from the constant fear of anyone lurking in the shadows and jumping me from behind, I have a coping strategy—art.
I was born with a talent for drawing, which I’ve inherited from my mother, who lived to be an artist. Whereas she preferred painting with a brush and using colors to create her masterpieces, I’ve always thrived in swinging a pencil. I like the sound the tip makes gliding over a sheet of paper, the way I feel it scratching the surface. I love how I can use the lead to create shades adding to the depths, and how I can bring a drawing to life by placing shadows and light reflections here and there.
Drawing is my therapy. The essence of my life. My temporary reprieve. My strategy to escape the dark veil of horrific memories constantly looming over me like the Sword of Damocles. As soon as I hold a pencil, my mind relaxes. When I draw, everything else becomes insignificant. Time loses its meaning, and the dark memories of my past subside. Along with my phone and house keys, a 2B pencil and a sketchpad are my essentials.
So, working as an illustrator in one of the biggest agencies in Florida is the best thing that ever happened to me. Granted, I’d rather not waste my talent for designing hearts, skulls, and flowers for T-shirts and logos, but I don’t complain. I can do what I was born to do and work mostly at night when I can avoid people. Actually, Kendra was the one who got me the job.
Tilting my head, I examine the illustration on my Mac, trying to decide if I got the mixture of yellow and orange right or if I should use a darker tone to enhance the flames engulfing the Phoenix on the screen. Our agency landed an assignment with a notable video game producer, and my boss, Carla, put me in charge of the branding for their newest adventure game, Legends of the Firebirds.
Getting the sketch right was quite hard as the client stated explicitly that the firebird’s shape should look like an eagle. As usual, the challenge is the eyes. Drawing animals is a science in itself, something I’m usually quite good at, but eagles are a different league. No idea why, but it’s nearly impossible to get their magnificence on paper.
“Leo. Oh good, you’re still here,” I hear Carla say when she breezes into the office. She wears a fire-red blazer, its hue matching the one of my Phoenix and hurting my eyes.
Carla is okay. She’s always super busy and doesn’t hover around much, letting her people work in peace. She’s a great artist and draws awesome cartoons. As far as I know, she once worked on a project for Pixar Studios to sketch the characters for the new Toy Story movie.
Her fuchsia lipstick clashes with her outfit, and I’m close to telling her that the combination is a no-go, but I manage to remain silent. I tend to utter the first thing that comes to my mind, which usually results in people getting offended, and I can’t afford to piss off Carla.
“This looks great, Leo,” Carla compliments when she halts next to me, glancing at the screen. “Make the beak a little longer and fade out the wings here,” she instructs. “By the way, the advertising agency wants another revision of their logo.”
I groan. “Again?”
Carla clicks her tongue. “This is what they pay us for. They’ve changed the color palette to this one here, so if you could adapt the logo variations by tomorrow, that would be great.” She hands me the new color palette with electric blues and a horrible mustard yellow.
“This is awful,” I mutter.
“I know, but they pay us good money. Remember, the customer is king. You might need to make the background a little darker, so the yellow doesn’t drown.”
I hate this project. This is the fifth time the client wants us to change their branding, and the color combination gets worse each time.
“By the way,” Carla starts, perching against my desk. “I have good news. A client was quite fascinated by one of the pencil drawings you gave me at your job interview.”
My ears perk up. “Which one?”
“The one you called Ravenous.”
One of my best pieces so far, in my opinion. Ravenous is a drawing of an eye with tree branches as eyelashes fading off to flying ravens on top, and tears running down the cheek to then flow into a pool of water that looks like a lake nestled in the forest. One of my more surrealistic pieces.
“And…” Carla continues, her smile growing bigger. “He wants to buy it for three hundred. I wanted to ask you first.”
Three hundred dollars for this piece that didn’t take me longer than forty minutes?
“Wow, cool. Of course, he can have it.”
“Great. Oh, one more thing… You know I’m going to New York in two weeks for the exhibition at the Studio Museum Harlem. I was thinking about bringing a few of your creations.”
It takes me a second to realize what she’s offering. “Wait, you want to exhibit my drawings in New York?”
“A few, yes. I was thinking about exhibiting a set of five pieces of Ravenous. Do you think you can draw a few variations by the end of next week?”
“Of course,” I mumble in astonishment.
“Great. I’ll give you the details tomorrow. Are you okay with coming into the office a little earlier for the next few days?”
No, I want to reply but swallow it down. It would be stupid to let a chance like this go to waste. “Sure,” I utter, even managing a little smile.
Carla nods in appreciation. “Okay, see you tomorrow then.”