She began at the base of her skull, kneading the tender skin of her neck. Using both hands, she combed through her hair, searching for an unnatural bump or abrasion. When nothing presented itself, she tried harder, nails digging into her scalp, catching the tips of her ears, tangling her hair. There were no scars or holes, no coin size dips; there was nothing to validate the story; her voice on the tape.
"I don't understand." She cut her mother off mid-sentence, interrupting the explanation Lorelai had been struggling to give. Rory turned from the window, pursed her lips, but Lorelai simply shook her head. "I don't…" she said again, but the words wavered off like a difficult confession, and the sentence was left unfinished.
"Rory." The tape recorder was behind Lorelai's back, but only partially obstructed; the manila envelope had fallen underneath the table, Mary's letter trapped underneath.
"I met him last week." She was a broken record of denial, her small frame hiding behind this flimsy excuse. And then, "I wouldn't do something like this." A subtle shifting of weight, fingertips clutching the counter. She was beginning to believe.
"You researched this. We researched this." Lorelai kept dipping forward, almost undetectably, before settling back in her chair. She wanted to go to Rory, take her in her arms, but her daughter was hugging her knees to her chest, sitting on the kitchen counter. In the early morning light, she looked impossibly pale and lost, a comatose patient too long gone, finally awake.
"Something like this…" Rory was choosing her words carefully, trying to say the right things, ask the right questions. Dried tears had turned her skin to rice paper, stiff and fragile, crumbling with too much pressure. She was going to cry again. "It doesn't exist. It can't." She paused on the final word, made it count, reverberate like her voice had, the ghost voice on tape.
"Sweetie, we questioned the doctor in detail, we went to the office together. You, you asked for references but the doctor laughed because none of his patients could remember to suggest him." At the stiff silence, Lorelai looked away. "It wasn't funny then either."
There were so many what's, but there was only one why that outweighed everything else. But Lorelai wasn't the person to ask; it didn't seem like she'd know. "When did this start? This idea? Something like this…" Something like this, her phrase of choice, as if she didn't know what to call it; couldn't bear to say it. "I wouldn't suddenly do it overnight."
"You discovered Lacuna in your freshman year. You were doing a research paper for your psychology class…something on the, um, hippo..."
"Hippocampus," Rory supplied.
"Yeah, something about that and the connection of the five senses with memory. Like how a certain smell can trigger one."
"I remember that class," Rory said softly. "But not the paper."
"I don't think you believed it. You just kind of filed it away in the back of your mind. You didn't even tell me about it until after – " She cut herself off abruptly but didn't bother trying to fill the gap with an excuse. There was nothing convincing she could say.
"After what?" Another what, never the why. The voice on the tape had said she loved him too much; her words brittle, her tone distant; symptoms of a broken heart.
"After Jess came back last February."
"Oh." She didn't turn her head. She was having trouble looking at her mother, looking anywhere beside out the window over the sink. The sun had risen, but she could still see the moon. "What happened?"
"He told you he loved you."
She pulled her lips between her teeth, nodded as if this was what she expected. "I can understand my pain. It's not everyday a boy confesses his love."
"You don't understand." Lorelai was sharp, defending her daughter's choice to the end result; the girl who couldn't know.
"I wouldn't, would I?"
"Don't say it like that! This isn't my fault. I didn't do this to you. It was your choice."
"But I don't understand why!" Palms face up, one leg dangling off the counter, the tip of her shoe brushing the floor; she was desperate and crying again; a sleep-deprived mess. "Why would I do this? What did he do? What could have happened? If he loved me…"
She didn't know what it was like to be in love, but whether this was a product of inexperience or the absence of memory, she couldn't be sure. With Dean, it had been new and exhilarating; the teenage definition of forever, stretching through high school; college on the horizon – blurry but promising. But the words exchanged had been expected and reused; pushed until it was an ultimatum. She couldn't know if it had been real with Jess; she didn't even know what it was with Logan.
Maybe she hadn't loved Jess at all. Maybe she was the one in the wrong, letting him down when he came back to tell her; breaking him with a shake of her head, tight lips terrified to tell the truth. Maybe it was guilt that had driven her to Lacuna, the need to forget the destruction of their relationship; her inability to fall in love.
But once again, there was the voice on the tape; her words, her pleading, her quiet desperation. She wondered about the pain that had driven her to do this, the agony of loss and requited feelings that weren't enough. She wondered how much she had cried over him and the reasons why. She wondered about the magnitude of all she had felt, the way it had filled her to capacity, so that she had to beg a doctor to remove him, to save her from remembering. She wondered if that was real love – this unbearable idea of loss.
"Rory, I don't know for sure what happened. He came back once more, to your dorm at school, but you never told me what he said. All I know is that he hurt you over and over again."
She had retreated back into herself, one arm tight around her knees, eyes trained on the kitchen floor. "I don't care why," she mumbled. "Just tell me when I had it done. That's my last question."
"Remember the opening of the Dragonfly?"
Her head flew up so fast it collided with the wall cabinet. Lorelai jumped to her feet, reaching for her daughter, feeling for a bump or blood through her hair. Rory didn't notice the pain, the resounding crack in the center of her skull or the tendrils trickling out like spider legs. She didn't even notice the forthcoming headache that had already manifested itself behind her eyes, settling along the bridge of her nose.
"Before or after?"
"Rory." She was petting her daughter's hair, still searching for signs of damage, but there was nothing external. She resisted the urge to hug Rory, knowing she would be pushed away.
"Before or after," she repeated through clenched teeth.
"The night before."
The breakaway was sudden. Lorelai had barely stepped back at Rory's sudden jerk, when the bedroom door slammed shut.
"Rory?" She knocked but there was no answer, and really, she hadn't expected one. "We didn't – the doctor said there was only supposed to be exhaustion. You would be tired and maybe a little confused, but it would all wear off within a few hours. He never mentioned that sleeping with your married ex-boyfriend was a possible side effect."
Rory opened the door, resting her head against its threshold. Her eyes were newly red, her lips wet from recent tears. "Why did it happen?"
"I think… I think you missed him."
This is what she remembered about that day: disappointment. She had woken with great regret, wanting to curl back into sleep, knowing she had abandoned a good dream. Its images were lost now, but she had the lasting feeling of elation; that she had been happy and it had been better than this.
The confusion and ache had come next with such velocity that she had to hold her head to keep the pain from spreading. It felt as if she had been shaken while she slept, her head an old attic filled with boxes that had been thrown about and knocked over, their content spilled along the floor. Pressing her palms to her forehead, she tried to reorganize, but her bedroom began to spin slowly, like the death of a merry-go-round.
She didn't know what it was, but she felt the difference, the lightness; a hospital patient waking up to find the operation a success but the loss devastating; a vital part of her was missing. She felt the disappearance of some internal organ; a loss of a kidney, the removal of the appendix; she laid a hand over the left side of her chest, feeling silly, but needing to make sure. The day had not even begun, and already she been knocked off balance, too exhausted and achy to get out of bed.
It only grew worse as the day progressed, the loss staying with her, filling up the newly hollow piece of her body. She missed it, whatever she had lost over the stretch of the night, and she wondered if this was only a delayed type of depression, the realization she had been making the wrong choices all along. Looking at her mother's success, comparing it to a disappointing freshman year, she wondered if maybe she was in the wrong place, taking the wrong classes, filling the role of the wrong person. She wasn't herself; she was lonely; she was confused; she was desperate.
And then she remembered Dean. She wondered if maybe he was the missing piece.
The yearn for familiarity, for the safety of an old flame; the desire to feel whole once again propelled her into his arms, and when he took off the ring and slipped his hands underneath her dress, she could almost feel her entire body calm, the hollow piece fill with something else, and for a little while, that good dream had returned.
It was several days before she realized she hadn't fixed anything, and the empty space hadn't gone away. It had only been distracted, and now it was filled with regret and guilt. Her headache lasted for a week.
Looking back now, she realized she wasn't remembering it wrong, but had misinterpreted her emotions at the time. Her mother was right. She had missed him. She had missed Jess dearly.
It rang six times, and somehow she didn't hang up. He picked up and said hello, but she was quiet. He repeated himself, and she sputtered out a greeting.
She was surprised how quickly he recognized her voice; was flattered that he could pick her apart. She liked his voice even if it was still a foreign sound.
"Hi," she said again. "I – I broke into Luke's apartment and found your phone number."
"I guess I could have asked, but I really didn't want to talk to him. It was easy. I just waited for him to go into the kitchen and then I went upstairs. It was hanging on the fridge, and I just took it and left. No covert ops or anything."
"Oh." He paused. "Okay."
"Yeah." How could he have this conversation with her? How could he pretend like everyone else? She couldn't wrap her mind around this situation – his presence and words and the feel of his hand when Luke introduced them. She wanted to yell at him, beg him to tell her why he hadn't said anything. New York was such a cruel joke now; their time together felt falsified, a repeat of time; an echo of the past. It made her sick.
"Did you want something?"
"Yes. I just…" She heard him take a deep breath and wondered if that was what it was like for him to be around her. Always gasping for air, drowning in her presence. "Do you have any pictures of us?"
He dropped the phone; she heard the flash of air as she fell from his hand, and the plastic crack when it hit the ground. For a moment, she thought he had thrown it.
She imagined him sitting on the floor, cradling the phone, waiting for her to say something. She pictured the quiet, the sideways slant of his mouth, and wondered what it had been like to kiss him. She wished she had kissed him in the diner the night before, when he had reached across the counter. She wanted to know what it was like; she wanted to miss the sensation, instead of this hollow idea of loss.
"Pictures of you and me," she said. "When we dated in high school."
"Rory, what did you – "
"Just answer, yes or no," she begged, cutting him off. She couldn't stand a question or the explanation she would have to give. Her throat was sore again, the foundation for more tears. "Do you have any gifts or a card? Did you ever... write me love letters?"
He racked his mind, trying to make the mental jump to catch up with her. There were no pictures, no gifts, and no, he had never thought to write her a love letter. There was nothing he could think of, no lasting evidence he could offer to show that they had been together. He tried to think of something to say, something to give, but in the end, he could only come with one syllable, a small, pathetic, "No."
"Oh." She swallowed. "Okay. Never mind. I shouldn't have – "
He heard the finality, and he reached out, as if he could physically stop her. "Rory, don't. Don't hang up."
"God, I'm sorry, Jess. I don't even – I'm so sorry."
The dial tone blared but he could still hear her apology, her regret echoing in his head.
"Hey." Luke set a cup of coffee on the counter as Lorelai took her seat. "How is she?"
"Well, let's see," Lorelai mused, flipping her hair out of her face. "She cried off and on all morning, went out for a walk, and when she came back a half hour later, she locked herself in her room with the phone."
"I'm sorry I told her. I should have waited, let you – "
"No, it's okay. She was going to find out eventually with Jess hanging around. It's just… I thought this was the right thing, Luke. I thought this would be good for her."
"You couldn't know how this would turn out." He laid his hand over hers, leaving out the part where he never agreed with any of this in the first place. Forgetting wasn't natural, no matter the residual pain, but he said nothing, trying to be supportive. Now wasn't the time for wagging fingers and I-told-you-so's. It was done, and they had to deal with the consequences.
"Who do you think she's calling? You don't think she'd want to talk to Jess, would she?"
"She's probably trying to contact Lacuna and talk to them about what actually happened."
Lorelai's face brightened in a brief moment of optimism before slipping back into a frown. "Yeah. Probably."
"Good morning, big brother!" Liz exclaimed, entering the diner. "Morning, Lorelai."
"Hi, Liz." Lorelai forced a smile as the woman took a seat next to her.
"Luke, do you think you could get a couple of doughnuts for your little sister?"
"That depends; does my little sister have cash?"
"I'll pay you back! You know I'm good for it."
Luke opened his mouth to name at least five examples where she had been the exact opposite, but in the end, he shook his head, and went off to fill her order.
"So Lorelai, I wanted to know if you'd be interested in taking some yoga classes with me." Liz asked, turning to address her.
"Um, yoga?" Lorelai blinked, confused by the offer. She was too wrapped up in this morning's events to consider anything beyond it.
"Yeah, it's supposed to be this great form of exercise during pregnancy, not to mention a great stress reliever. I thought with the stress of running your inn and dating my brother, you might want to unwind once in a while." At Lorelai's silence, Liz hurried on, "I mean, you don't have to come every time. Just once in a while. It'd be a way for us to get to know each other, girl to girl."
Lorelai looked thoughtful, as if she was considering the offer. "Liz, do you have any pictures of Rory and Jess?"
Luke echoed her question as he returned with a plate of doughnuts and a fresh pot of coffee. "Lorelai, did you just ask – "
"I was just curious," Lorelai said. "I think Rory's gotten nostalgic. And we don't have any."
"Ceremonial burning of the ex-boyfriend's stuff leave you without any?" Liz asked with a familiar smirk.
"Um, well…" Lorelai trailed off. "Something like that."
"It's okay, I know your daughter and my Jess didn't end on the best note." She thought for a moment, considering the scrapbooks she had purchased, the boxes of photos she had sitting in her bedroom. "You know, I think I have one."
"Really?" Lorelai was already standing, hand on her purse. "Can I see it?"
He had torn his apartment apart without any idea of what he was looking for. He already knew there were no cards or letters, small gifts he had bought her and taken back in the breakup. He wasn't that type of guy. She used to know that about him; she used to not mind.
He had upturned every drawer, torn through every cabinet, and sunk into a kitchen chair, head in his hands, when the obvious finally occurred to him. He didn't know why he hadn't thought of it before – maybe it was because she hadn't asked, hadn't thought to ask – but he had his books. A few of them were hers, but that didn't prove anything; it was his handwriting all over each page. But there had to be a few – maybe just one or two – that contained snippets of her thoughts, her flowery handwriting crammed into a corner, wedged beneath his. He was halfway to the bookcase when the phone rang and he jumped, thinking it was her.
"Hello?" He hated the way his voice came out, squeezed and too small, like he had been waiting, like he was terrified.
He sighed, the relief and disappointment too strong for him. He sat on the floor, in front of his bed, the bookcase inching into his peripheral vision. "Hi, Liz."
"So you're talking to me? You're not going to hang up."
"5, 4, 3…"
"Okay, okay. You're so testy. I just wanted to call you, say hi."
"Well, you said that already. Anything else?"
"Have you been bothering Lorelai's girl?"
"Excuse me?" He turned so he was face to face with the bookcase, eyes scanning the titles.
"Sorry, that came out wrong. I mean, have you seen her? Have you been talking to her?"
"Why would you ask that? I've been in town, like, twice. Both times on your orders."
Liz scoffed. "I did not order you. I merely asked that you – "
"Fine." She sighed. "Anyway, Lorelai asked me if I had any pictures of the two of you this morning."
"Pictures?" he echoed. There was that request again. She was trying so hard to dig up the past. He could feel the excavation, the horrid sunlight after being buried for too long.
"Are you talking to her again? I think it would be sweet if the two of you got back together. She seems like such a nice girl," Liz continued, oblivious to her son's discomfort.
"Did you give her any?"
"Well, I only had one. I have this picture of Luke in a party hat from his birthday. Turns out that you and Rory are in the picture too. You're in a booth in the corner, completely wrapped up in each other, but you can tell it's you two."
Jess let out a slow breath, trying to get used to this idea. He remembered the ridiculous picture of Luke, the circle of him from one of Liz's collages on the wall. He and Rory had been there too, their half hidden by the decorative wood.
"Oh." It was all he could manage to say.
"I hope you don't mind that I gave it to her. I know you two had a bad break-up but I figured if she wanted to see it, it was because she missed you or something."
"Missed me. She doesn't – "
"I know, I know," Liz said. "You two have been broken up for a while, and I know it was bad. So bad that Luke asked me not to mention you in front of Rory, but – "
"Wait," Jess cut in. "Luke asked that you didn't mention me?"
"Yeah. And I didn't."
"Luke asked and that's it. There was nothing else?"
"What else would there be? Luke said Rory was upset, and I shouldn't bring you up. I can manage to do that, Jess. I'm not completely incapable of keeping my mouth shut."
"I – I know." The sudden rush of warmth for his mother startled him. He hadn't expected it, but he welcomed it as he worked out what her words meant. She didn't know. She had never known. There was a smaller thought, barely a whisper; it was telling him that she never would have done it; she never would have kept him a secret. It was why she didn't receive a pink card, why Luke hadn't thought to tell her the truth. With Luke, he had been split between Jess and Rory, trying to do the right thing for both of them, but with Liz, Jess was her first concern. And she wouldn't have done it. She didn't even know!
"Look, Jess, I wanted to invite you back down here to the house. Try to make up for our last visit? You know, Rory is having a birthday party this week. Why don't you have lunch with me and then go and crash her party?"
"I want to see you, even if I'm just an excuse for you to see her."
"Liz, I – sure. I'll come down."
"Yeah? You'll have lunch at the house with me and TJ?"
"And you won't make inappropriate comments about TJ's newest career choice?"
"What is he – never mind. Whatever it is, I'll keep it to myself."
"Good. So we're agreed?"
He had finally found Atonement, remembering her sly smile as she gave it back after a weekend of borrowing it. He remember her playful words written inside, the way it had started a silly war between them. He had more books like that; just a sentence or two from her, a flirtatious game they had played. It was enough.
"Yeah, we're agreed."