In the Absence of Time
There isn’t an adequate way to explain this. When I’ve tried, people have scoffed, changed the subject, or walked away. Ironically, the only ones who have ever been willing to listen are those I’ve had no interest in telling. The idea of reincarnation is too foreign for most people, and perhaps a bit frightening. It’s never been an accepted part of our culture, at least not in upstate New York where I grew up. And that’s understandable, since there’s no way to prove it, at least not scientifically. No irrefutable evidence or repeatable experiments. And if something can’t be proven, then how can it be believed? All I have is my experience, which is more than you might think. I actually “remember” parts of a past life. I know it sounds strange, so strange that I learned early on to keep my so-called “memories” to myself. But I never forgot. You don’t forget such things.
You see, I came into this life clinging to a previous one. Although it didn’t dawn on me until I was about four years old. That’s when I had a large enough vocabulary to ask my parents about the “accident.” They had no idea what I was talking about, and I didn’t know myself except for some sketchy details. I assumed it had been an auto accident, but it might have been something else. I asked how my sister Julia was doing. Was she alright? Did she survive? Was she still in the hospital? I was genuinely worried. But these questions were even more puzzling to my parents, because… well… I was an only child. They became more than a little upset with me. My father dismissed my questions as ridiculous nonsense. “Rubbish” was his word. My mother tried to put a positive spin on my “woo-woo ideas,” as she called them. She told her friends that I “suffered from” an overactive imagination, as if it was a syndrome of some kind. That’s also what the doctor said, the psychiatrist they sent me to before I was five. Here’s the memory. You can judge for yourself.
I’m in a hospital room. I don’t know how I know it’s a hospital room, because up until then I hadn’t been in one since the day I was born, and I wouldn’t remember that. But I’m quite certain it’s a hospital room, and everything is white. Really white, like blinding white. Except for the blood. And there’s a lot of it. Plus there are a lot of people in the room, most of them standing around in hospital gowns looking at a girl who’s lying on a long, narrow table. That’s the Julia I referred to earlier. She’s my older sister. She’s eight and I’m five. And she’s badly hurt. I don’t know how badly, but because of all the people I assume it’s serious. I don’t understand what’s happening, but I can see everything because I’m looking down on her, like a bird that’s been let loose in the room. I warned you this was strange. Julia is lying there cut open like a fish. People are shouting, hooking up machinery, and doing strange things to her body. And not a single one of them is paying any attention to me.
One other thing. I don’t know how or why I remember this, but “New York” fits into the story. I don’t know if it’s the city or the state, but the words “New York” are significant. Maybe it’s because I was raised in New York in this life. I can’t be sure. But that’s part of the story.
The thing that fascinates me most is that the “memory” never faded as I grew older. It remained vivid in my mind. The problem was that I couldn’t talk about it without others thinking I was crazy or delusional. And this inability to communicate became a kind of psychic hole that couldn’t be filled. I tried to forget, put it out of my mind, but I couldn’t. The few times I found people with a sympathetic ear, they were the palm reader, tarot card, or new age types. Once in high school I even dated a girl named Julia. Perhaps it was a feeble attempt to get closer to my “remembered” sister. But going out with this other Julia was too weird, a bit like incest even though we never did it. Mostly I kept everything buried inside. And it stayed that way until I was old enough to not care what other people thought. This change in my thinking was coincident with me reading a book by a paranormal psychiatrist who had spent his career interviewing children who “remembered” their past lives. After that I decided to go deeper into my own story. In a way I don’t think I had much of a choice. I simply had to find Julia. But where to start?
At the time, I had completed two years of junior college. My plan was to finish my degree in journalism, but I put those plans on hold and moved to The City to start my search. I stayed with a friend from high school who had a small apartment in Spanish Harlem. And before the end of the first week, I had a wait job at Kinx, an upscale restaurant on the Upper West Side. It was sixty hours a week but mindless. Mornings I sat in a café on West 73rd. Midafternoons I showed up at the restaurant. And by midnight I was back in the apartment sleeping on a pullout sofa bed. They were busy hours, but I still had time to think and to try to come up with a plan.
For several weeks, I worked the “braille method,” which is pretty simple. When it feels right, you keep doing it; when it feels wrong, you do something else. It consisted mostly of asking strangers if they knew of anyone named Julia. But the method didn’t produce results. I needed something more concrete.
Next came hypnotherapy, which my roommate had suggested. The hypno person I found was understanding. She was good and really tried. We did maybe a dozen sessions. Trouble was, I didn’t learn any more than I already knew. The hospital, the bright lights, Julia on the table, me bouncing off the ceiling like a helium balloon. If anything, the sessions caused more confusion. They made my memory more vivid, but could I trust these embellished visions? I couldn’t help but think about my mother and the psychiatrist. Maybe it was all just due to an overactive imagination and nothing more. That’s when I starting doubting everything. I no longer knew what was real or what I believed. It got so I couldn’t trust myself. So I quit the hypnotherapy. Besides I couldn’t afford to continue.
The next step was to look through newspaper archives. I’d been in journalism; so I hoped I would be able to find something. But it was harder than I imagined. When you get down to it, I really didn’t know what I was looking for. All I “knew” was that I’d been in an accident. But what kind of accident? When and where did it take place? Who was involved? I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t have any concrete details, just a few assumptions. At least one person—me—had died in the accident. The book I’d read, the one about the children who “remembered,” suggested that most of them had been dead three to five years before they came back as someone else in a new life. That gave me a date range. I assumed that I “died” between 21 and 26 years ago. Then there was the thing about New York, so that was my “where.” I also believed that an eight-year-old girl named Julia had survived. It wasn’t much. I looked at the available archives on the internet, but they were limited, so I scanned thousands of microfiche in the public library. But it came to nothing. The only thing that grew were my doubts. On top of this, my parents had barely spoken to me after I’d dropped out of school, and now they believed I’d gone totally bonkers. I learned through the grapevine that my mother talked to her friends about me. “The boy is obsessed,” she told them. “We’ve lost him.”
Then someone I met in the café on West 73rd, suggested I try using social media. He told me about the six degrees of separation, the Kevin Bacon thing, the idea that we’re all connected to everyone else in the world through six or fewer relationships. He said that I could use social media in a similar way. The idea was intriguing, but first I had to decide who I was looking for. Otherwise, there wasn’t any real chance of finding her. There were too many twisted possibilities. Did Julia survive the accident? Was she dead or alive? Did she live in the U.S.? What if her career or marriage had taken her to Boise, Idaho, or Johannesburg, South Africa? What did I actually know about her other than her first name? The short answer is “nothing.” Maybe she was between the ages of 30 and 40. Maybe she lived in New York. Maybe she survived. Maybe her five-year-old brother had died. And maybe I was that long lost brother. It was a long shot, but it was all I had.
Inside of a week, I had the names of fourteen “Julia’s” in Manhattan, another dozen in the rest of the state, and more than I cared to count in the rest of the country. One respondent knew of a “Julie” in England that fit the description. Another wrote that her name was Jules and she’d lost a brother when he was six, but she lived in Germany. The oddest one was a woman named Ju Li Ling originally from Shanghai. She claimed to match my description except that she was in her eighties and currently living in Mexico. Go figure.
The “Julia’s” in Manhattan seemed the most promising. I picked three who came closest to matching my criteria and wrote to their email addresses. I got two responses, both of whom agreed to meet me at the café. The interviews were a bit strained, and neither one felt right. The first had issues with age and timing. The second one was an African American woman who had been raised in Georgia. Race hadn’t been one of my considerations, and since I was white, I’d stupidly assumed that I had been white in my most recent past life. But with this “Julia” it was more of a geography issue. At this point, I was back to the braille method. I wrote to three more on the Manhattan list. Only one of these agreed to a meeting, and it turned out that she’d lost a younger sister rather than a brother. After that I started going through a dozen names who lived in the rest of the state. Out of that number, there was only one, a woman in Albany that caught my attention. I didn’t have a car or the time to get off work, but I did reach her by phone. Again it didn’t feel right. At the time of her “accident,” she had been thirteen years older than her brother and eight years older than a sister who also died in the accident. I confided in my roommate that I’d come up with nothing, zero, nada. It was a dead end. He told me to quit, and for a time I tried.
I focused on work at the restaurant, not that there was much to focus on. But it kept me busy. Plus the money was decent. And I was managing to put some away in case I ever made it back to school. As far as having a personal life, there wasn’t time. I met some interesting women, had a few opportunities, but didn’t like going out on dates. Neither my head nor heart were into it. At my morning coffee, the journalist in me usually got lost in the bad news of the newspapers. On my days off I visited one of the city’s many art museums. I became quite the expert on abstract expressionism. It seemed to act as some sort of escape valve. Then late in July, I got an email.
It was from the third Manhattan “Julia,” the one who hadn’t responded to my first round of emails. She wrote saying that she might be the one I was looking for. Naturally I was skeptical, but I’d come this far. So I invited her to meet me at the café. Three days later, I was sitting in the back corner watching the door when she walked in. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew it was her. She looked around the café but didn’t see me, so I stood up. Our eyes met, and I waved. Cautiously, she made her way through the crowd. She was an attractive woman, thin, her hair tied back. She had a soft, heart-shaped face that was complemented by the pastel colors of her blouse and her creased khaki slacks.
“Julia?” I asked when she reached the table. She nodded. “Can I get you a coffee?” I asked. “I don’t have much time,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m already late for work... in SoHo.” “Right,” I said. So we both sat down.
I apologized for making her come all the way uptown, and she started by asking me what this was really all about. She seemed agitated, on edge. “I guess this is a bit awkward,” I said. “Yes,” she said, evenly. “Well,” I began, “it’s like what I wrote in the search.”
I filled in some of the sketchy details, the problems that I’d had living with these feelings all my life, and my desire to get to some sort of resolution. She took a sip of water from the glass that was on the table and looked at me as if she was trying to find a recognizable feature. I finished my Cliff Notes version and waited for a response. When none came, I said, “You probably think I’m crazy. And I completely understand.” “Are you?” she asked. She paused and took a long breath. “Look, what do you want from me? I’m not sure why I came here.” “Only what I already said,” I answered. But then I added that I’d dropped out of college and took a job in Manhattan on a hunch that she might be living here. I told her about my newspaper searches, and the suggestion that I try searching using social media. “That’s how I found you,” I said.
Julia looked down and started talking quietly. Yes, she said, she had been in a car accident, a head-on collision, a drunken driver. Both of her parents and her brother had been killed. He was five, she said, and she had been eight, the same ages that I had written in the search. She added that she had undergone several operations. I asked if her brother had been brought into the same hospital room as she had. “It’s possible,” she said. She added that she didn’t remember anything from that day. Then without warning, our meeting was over. She abruptly stood up. She looked nervous, unwell. Before I could say a word, she announced that she was late and turned to leave. I watched her navigate through the crowded café and out onto the street. I didn’t think I’d ever hear from her again, and it didn’t seem right to try to contact her. So, I did nothing. In truth, I felt horrible. Never had I considered the impact that this might have on her if I found her. I’m not sure what I would have done differently, but in that moment I wanted nothing more than to drop the search and go back to college.
It was a little more than week later when I got another email and two days after that when we had our second meeting. I arrived at the café and claimed a table. Julia arrived ten minutes later, bought a coffee at the counter, and sat down across from me. I smiled and said “Hello.” She put a large book on the table. “It’s a photo album,” she said. And for the first time on this journey, I felt nervous, so much so that my hands started shaking. I kept them on my lap under the table and out of sight. Julia opened the book to a group photo. I didn’t know if I was looking at a church social, a family gathering, or something else, but I had an immediate and strange feeling. It was a feeling of recognition. Freakishly I pointed to one of the several small boys gathered in front of the standing adults and said, “That’s me, isn’t it?” Julia didn’t say anything. She just looked at me. In fact, she looked rather pale. I didn’t say anything more. After a long moment, she looked away as if to find comfort in the poster art on the walls. Then she turned back to the photo and said, simply, “yes.”
That morning I learned that Julia was 33. That she worked for a magazine. That she had been married briefly but was now divorced. That she used her maiden name Morgan. That she lived alone and had never had children. She turned a page in the album and pointed to a photograph of two adults standing behind two small children. “Their names were Harriet and Jack,” she said. She paused. “And his name,” she said, putting a finger on the boy, “was Hank.” “Hank Morgan,” I said. There was something big and dry residing in my throat. I could hardly get the words out. “We grew up in Binghamton,” she continued. “After the accident, I went to live with an aunt in Syracuse. Her name was also Morgan. Aunt Mildred. She died shortly after I graduated from high school. After that I went to college, moved to The City, got a job, got married, divorced, and,” she paused again, “and here we are.” “Here we are,” I agreed. I was learning that Julia was a person with limits, and we had just reached another. She stood up and said that she had to go. I asked if we could meet again, but all she could say was, “I don’t know.”
That was the last that I heard from Julia for nearly three weeks. Again I went back to focusing on everything except Julia, but of course it was nearly impossible to think about anything else. I confided in my roommate who listened to everything as though it was a PBS documentary on the paranormal. Again, I stayed busy. And I’d almost given up on hearing from her when I got my third email. We met the following morning.
She came to the café but this time looked remarkably different. There was a smile on her face. She came to the table with a coffee and two pastries. “I hope you like ginger scones,” she said, handing me one. “I’m afraid I’m addicted,” she added. I thanked her, took one, and broke off a piece. Julia started the conversation by saying that she had originally thought I was either crazy, a criminal, or both, and that she would never have come to the café the first time had a friend not insisted. She told me that she’d had no interest in reliving the accident and its aftermath, and she was sure she didn’t believe in reincarnation. The only thing she felt certain about was that talking to me could somehow hurt her. I asked her why her friend had insisted. She talked about having had feelings of emptiness that sometimes threatened to eat her alive. She said she was convinced that her marriage had failed because of such feelings. Her friend said that she was never going to resolve her issues unless she explored every opportunity. “That’s why I came,” she said. “That and curiosity, I suppose.” “And now?” I asked. “How are you feeling now?” She said that she felt lighter. Even if there was no truth in what I was saying, she said she felt better having talked about it. “Even with a total stranger?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “if what you claim is true, then perhaps you’re not a total stranger.”
Julia revealed that life after the accident had been difficult. She had nearly died from internal bleeding and organ failure. She’d lost her entire family. She had moved to a new city to live with an aunt she barely knew. The physical issues had been difficult enough, but the mental issues had been worse. After her aunt died, she went off to college to study journalism. She said it was the first time she had been able to explore who she was without the baggage of her past. I laughed at the mention of journalism, and told her about my studies. The connection between us seemed to deepen.
“What now?” she asked when the conversation had reached a stopping point. “I honestly don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. But now that my search is over, I guess I’ll try to get into the fall semester. I’ve been wanting to get back to doing something other than looking for you. And now that I’ve found you...” “Yes,” she interrupted. “And now that you’ve found me, what do you plan to do?” “Nothing,” I said. And that was how our meeting ended. Except that this time we hugged each other before she walked out into the light of the street.
A month later I was back in school and thoroughly enjoying my classes. I became a stringer for the college newspaper, which involved far more work than I had anticipated. But in a way, it was exactly what I needed. Without the weight of my search, I was free to be fully myself. I don’t know any other way of putting it. I didn’t contact Julia. I assumed that she needed time to absorb everything that I’d dumped on her. And if she decided not to contact me, I was satisfied just to know that she existed. Then in early November I got a call. It was Julia wanting to know if I could come to The City for Thanksgiving. She said she wanted to spend the holiday with family. I said “yes.”