The Citadel of You

You’ve done it. You’ve reached a life milestone you never imagined you could. You braved the storm of life for so long you forgot what blue skies look like, and you emerged on the other side to see a sunrise cast ripples of gold across the calming waves. You accomplished the things you were unsure of, you worked hard, you gained wisdom, and you grew older than you care to admit. You found a kindred spirit to call your own, built a beautiful house into a home, you raised children that walk in your likeness, and progressed through a career you found fulfilling. Now, after years of carving your own path, your journey has come to an end. Incredibly done. It’s an alien feeling, but you can finally settle down. You always fantasized that there’d be days like this. The only thing you never saw coming, is that resting on one’s laurels often feels like aimless drifting.

Today, is a strange day. The whole world feels more vivid to you that it normally would despite being encased in a thick cloud of fog. The surrounding sky has been dyed grey, breathing feels heavy, and the moisture in the air tickles your face as you walk down a broken path towards your old elementary school. You move past the park, the grass field, the basketball nets, and the surrounding houses. All of the places you could free roam between recess bells, and daydream about as you watched a classroom wall clock from an uncomfortable desk, swearing it wasn’t actually moving. You don’t know why you decided to come here today, you felt drawn to it inexplicably from the moment you woke up. Some force of nature that can’t be put to words pushed you to be here, or maybe it was just written to be this way. It doesn’t really matter. You didn’t need to know why then, and you don’t need to know why now. The only thing worth knowing today, is the rhapsody of old memories that come flooding back into your mind from that golden age in just being here. They feel so distant that they’re hardly real, and you can’t help but smile each one.

For a time, the world leaves you alone with your thoughts, so that you can reminisce in peace. You walk around the school by yourself reflecting on the times of your youth, until you grow tired, and turn back on the path you came to spot another living soul in the distance. They appear as little more than a shadow in the fog, sitting on one of the benches at the edge of the park with their head hanging towards the floor. The grounded clouds hovering between the two of you make it impossible to see what this person looks like from afar, but even their silhouette strikes you in an odd way. They shift slightly in their seat, and their mannerisms send a sense of familiarity surging through your neck. A voice in your head prods you to go over and see who it is, just a glance at their face would make the enigma go away. So, you begin walking in their direction, letting your curiosity beat out your instinct. As you approach, you begin to see a peculiar head of hair, a face, and a figure all belonging to someone you’re certain you know. You just can’t put your finger on who. They’re up in your head somewhere, but the memory is elusive, and it doesn’t make sense to you to have ever seen this person again. As you close in, it gets stranger still, this person is wearing the exact outfit you set out for yourself for your first day as a sophomore in high school.

This isn’t right, you tell yourself. Something is off about this person. You’re too close now. Turn back. Walk away. Too late. You’ve alerted them, they’ve heard your footsteps, they know you’re here. They look directly up at you, and you go dumfounded, as you stare into the reddened, glossy eyes of an adolescent version of yourself.

A few dozen heartbeats pass without either of you being able to muster a word. Just two sets of eyes locked between a planet’s gravitational pull, and a mutual understanding of the situation expressed through both of your faces. You feel as though you should say something, given this is a rare opportunity. You’ve known many people in your lifetime that use what you might say in a letter to a past self as bar talk. Now you’re faced with the real thing, and nothing comes to your mind that you feel is worth saying. You could tell them that they’re hopelessly naive, or wrongfully pessimistic, maybe hint at an embarrassing situation to be avoided in the coming months. Tell them that everything is going to be alright, and that life is going to fall into place even if they couldn’t know it yet. How sweet would it be to hear that all of those long nights you spent self-loathing at their age end up sculpting you into something enchanting. But no, you decide, none of that feels like it would be appropriate to say, your words would only stand to cheapen the feeling of the moment. If anything is meant to be spoken right now, it should be coming from the mouth of your sophomore self.

“You’re me.” They say, almost on cue. As if you shared the same train of thou-

“No, no. You, are me.” You retort.

“…We really get old.”

“It happens.”

“…I didn’t think it would.”

“I know. I remember.”

They pause for a moment in thought. “…Are we happy?” They ask.

“…I think so.” You say, after some hesitation. This sets your counterpart at ease, and you notice the all too memorable look of a thousand questions brimming behind your juvenescent eyes. You were curious about everything back then. Just as they seem as if they’re about to jump into a rapid-fire questioning, you hear another voice approaching on your left.

“Look what the cat dragged in.” It says, and you turn to notice that it belongs to another version of yourself. This time, a bit older, from a time in your life you were invincible. You had gotten your first foothold on living, and felt like you could do or say no wrong, influential to everyone that you met, with superhuman confidence, and godly charisma. As far as how others see you, this is the most unforgettable you’ve ever been. Even in the modern day you look back to them when you lose your way, or you’re forced into doing something you’re fearful of. They’ve always been proof that somewhere within you is the ability to move mountains when you wanted to. You were magnetic, adventurous to almost no fault, and completely disarming. True to form, they don’t hesitate for a second to start cracking jokes and making observations between the three of you. They break the ice faster than a bipedal polar bear, and the conversation begins flowing out of the trio like a geyser.

As you talk, more and more of you begin coming out of the ether to join in on the discussion. The most athletic you, from the time you sold yourself on exercise, runs up to the group. A version of you from when you were comfortable with your own company stands off the side and watches from a distance. A post-break you stops moping to take part in this new experience, for an instant they don’t feel as if they’ve just had their heart torn out of their chest. Another post-break up you moves from person to person, contributing energetically to what’s being said, feeling like they’ve just been paroled out a life sentence in solitary. Any and every past incantation of yourself you could ever want to speak to begins popping up around the bench, forming into groups, throwing compliments, dishing out laughter. Stories are swapped excitably, too many to keep up with, as every one of you tries to recollect vivid memories through one another that feel like they were just yesterday. For some of you, they were just yesterday. It feels glorious, for a time.

But, there can only be one you. There has only ever been one you, it’s one of the few things you’ve known for as long as you’ve lived. It doesn’t take long for the entire group to realize that something feels off about having more than one of you in the same time and place. In just a few minutes of conversation, the novelty of talking to yourself begins to wear off, and the interactions turn into something too odd to feel comfortable in, too uncertain not to question. Collective tension begins to swell, and the dialogue shifts towards getting to the bottom of what the hell is going on, and why. It descends down a slippery slope into fingers being pointed in blame, accusations are thrown in every direction by any version of you with enough conviction to make them. Those who are accused grow defensive, and begin sending back jabs in the form of whatever hurtful remarks pop into their head. Every self-deprecating, or masochistic thought you’ve ever had throughout your life begins to surface in some version of yourself looking upon another. Even you join in, by chewing out a twenty four year old you, for being too cowardly to take chances. Each insult is reciprocated, worse than the one before it. In a matter of moments, the entire group is spitting knives, and bringing the worst insecurities you’ve harboured out to sea without any thoughts to their impact. Nothing that cuts this deep could come from any mouth but your own.

The pressure rises, and the commotion devolves into chaos heading towards a boiling point. Some of you, begin screaming your insults over the others to be heard, and the volume of the group raises in turn. Nastier, and nastier things are said, and the heated interactions turn into face-to-face yelling matches. Every other moment seems like one in which the group could come to intergenerational blows. In the maelstrom, two specific versions of you heading on a collision course catch your eye. One, is a cherished you, the most vulnerable you’ve felt in your life. When you were introverted, melancholy, and would tear up in the day for no reason; sensitive to things you didn’t have to be. The other, is the most bitter, toxic you that has ever been. From a life chapter in which you hated the world and everyone in it; spitting poison in the faces of even those who showed you compassion. You watch helplessly as that regretful memory walks through the crowd in the direction of your vulnerable self. Anxiety floods into your hands when you realize you won’t be able to protect them from whatever happens next. When they’re within a foot of each other they meet eye to eye, and without thinking, the only version of you plagued by a heart full of hate reaches into the deepest, darkest corner of anything that’s ever brought you pain, and says something that is downright unthinkable. The group stops in their tracks, falling instantly silent, and your vulnerable self’s eyes pool with tears.

Something inside of you snaps. You lunge through the crowd, grab them by their collar, and throw them to the ground. Hatred for this part of your life booms through your head like a war drum, and every thought is filled with painful flashbacks of all the times they inflicted wounds on others. You’ve spent so many sleepless nights wanting to stomp out this version of yourself after walking a green mile down memory lane, now you have the chance to do it literally. Your knuckles tense. You see red. Beat them mercilessly, you tell yourself. Thrash them within an inch of their life for ever being a part of yours.

An eleventh grade you, that was only halfway through reading Lord of the Flies begins chanting for you to punch an apology out of them. A twenty two year old you punctuates that chant in their own tone of seething anger. A thirty one year old you turns the battle cry into an orchestra, shouting for violence from the top of their lungs. An eleven year old you adds a tenor section to that orchestra, because they don’t know any better. One by one the rest of your doppelgängers join in on the outcry for blood, each feeling personally victimized by that awful segment of your life. You reach down with your weak hand and grab them by the collar again, pinning them to the ground. You raise your strong hand into the air and squeeze it tightly into a fist, summoning every ounce of self-hatred you’ve ever repressed thinking it was the healthy thing to do. For an instant, sound ceases to exist.

This is for every time you’ve ever allowed your ego to push good people out of your life.

This is for every time you were too self-absorbed to notice something beautiful standing right in front of you.

But, just as you’re about to send your fist plunging into your own youthful face, a strange movement to your left catches the corner of your eye. You look over to see what it is, and when you do, your fist relaxes back into a hand, dropping to your side. The anger disappears, you slump to your knees, tears begin streaming down your face, and you find yourself unable to look away. Suddenly nothing you’ve learned in your lifetime feels like it was worth knowing. Humility casts a shadow over your head like a skyscraper, as what you see dwarfs your passion, creativity, and life fulfillment by unfathomable amounts. Your lips tremble, and your stomach turns inside out at the very sight of something so beautiful. A five year old you, playing in the park, laughing vibrantly by themselves as they run backwards up a slide.

You watch them, in a trance, until the trance wears off. Then, you watch some more. Your eyes follow that little conduit of wonder for so long they burn dry when you blink, and your throat parches when you swallow. In time, sound comes back online in the world, but it makes little difference to what you’re able to hear. There isn’t a single version of you at this point that isn’t spellbound by the child playing in the park, even the creature you were about to pummel moments earlier seems too awestruck to say a word. This level of captivation doesn’t leave much room for speech, just introspection, and measuring out the way you’ve been living your life to the new criteria of making sure it does justice to this magnificent kid. It’s sobering to be reminded that you once came from something so pure.

After another minute, you wipe the tears away from your face with your sleeve and struggle back to your feet. Slowly, as your five year old self is so soaked in bliss they haven’t noticed they have an audience. You reach down and grab the hand of your toxic self, helping them up from the ground so they they’re standing at your side again. Without thinking, you reach out and take them in your arms, squeezing so tightly that it borders on being uncomfortable. At first they tense up, but that quickly turns into relaxed acceptance. The world feels like it’s been painted warm, your body feels like it is made of comfort, and you regret the fact that you ever tried to lay a hand on them. This could be just your residual amazement talking, but for the time being, you feel nothing but forgiveness and empathy for the beautiful brat. It would be hypocritical to feel otherwise.

When you finally let go, the two of you perfectly mirror softened eyes as an unspoken apology. You count six heartbeats until someone decides to speak.

“I’m sorry…” They stammer. “I… I don’t know why I’m like this.”

“You’ll learn, in time.” You reply, just above a whisper. A few more heartbeats pass.

“I have a long way to go, don’t I?” They ask.

“Not as long as you think. Everything will feel right again before you know it.”

“When do I make the change?”

You stop to think for a moment.

“…I won’t spoil it for you.”

Leaves rustle in the distant breeze like wind chimes at a neighbouring cottage. A second wave of silence hits your eardrums like the firing of a cannon. The sky remains unchanging, and your toxic self beams at your quip as if you’d just given them enough reassurance to keep going for forty years. It’s righteous to see a smile on the face of someone you can’t remember wearing any mask that wasn’t twisted into a scowl. You take a look around you, and you find the rest of the group sharing similar moments of high hope to your own, trading forgiving grins, and optimistic reflection. Some even grab younger versions of themselves in bear hugs as an ultimate act of self-acceptance. It all feels whole again. Euphoria rushes through your face as you inhale a deep breath of the misty morning, and you decide that your life is a precious collection of unique experiences that compose a masterpiece of a human being. None of which, should be disowned, no matter how terrible you remember them to be.

No sooner do you finish this thought, do you look back at your toxic self to find them still watching you with prideful eyes. You notice a brief flicker of sadness behind their smile as they let out a long, shaky exhale. There’s hardly a moment to consider what the look might mean, when without warning, that once hated recollection begins to fade into the fog right where they stand. Their body goes opaque, their colour dampens, their outline begins to blend with the surrounding air. With no time to think, you panic, and jump forward to try to pull them out of the vanishing act. But, as your hand reaches the place where their shoulder should be, it passes clean through their torso as if you were grasping at air.

“Let it be.” You hear them say. They extend their own hand to try to touch your face while on the brink of becoming fully transparent. In the next second, the person you were able to grab in your arms not ten minutes earlier, ceases to exist. All that’s left is an empty space in the centre of the crowd that doesn’t show the slightest trace of them ever being there. The group suddenly feels incomplete. You look around at your other selves in a daze, searching for confirmation that you weren’t the only one who had witnessed what had just occurred. To your surprise, each of them now have their attentions fixed on you, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. All of them, smiling, just as your toxic self did before they went. They’ve got the same look in their eyes, of satisfaction, and dignity; like an inaudible round of applause. Congratulations, you finally did it you old soul. You found yourself again. Mazel tov to a lesson learned. Who cares. You would go back to ignorance in a second if it stopped what you think is going to happen next.

The sensitive you takes a step forward to separate themselves from the rest of the collective. They let a rare smile shine through their face, before dwindling into the grey just as their antithesis did. Your invincible self gives you a subtle wink before disappearing into thin air. Your sophomore self sits back down in the place they started on the bench, before waving to you, and doing the same. One by one, you watch all of the triumphant faces that you once called your own in memory evaporate right in front of your eyes with little you can do to stop it. Only standing idle, remaining numbly in place, and wishing so desperately that you could see each and every one of them just one last time before they’re gone forever. All the while, thinking to yourself that it isn’t fair. That it all happened too fast. They didn’t even give you a chance to say goodbye.

You go to bury your face into your hands to hide your anguish from the now empty world, when movement to your right catches your eyes again. You whirl around to see your five year old self jumping down from the mezzanine of the playground, landing on the cushioned ground at their feet with a soft thud. As they get up, they notice you for the first time, and stop playing to stare at the strange older figure standing alone in the fog. You freeze in place as their eyes settle on you, not moving a single muscle, hoping your stillness will somehow stop them from leaving like all of the others. You want more than anything in your willfull fibre for them to stay with you longer than they are allowed. But, when you stare into the inquisitive eyes of the child, living in a little world of unsolved mysteries, you realize that there is no point in delaying the inevitable. Just make sure you go out swinging.

“Thank you.” You say. Your voice seems to echo off of every tree, fence, and concrete surface of this place you once called paradise. The noise reaches their ears, and they tilt their head to the side, acting perplexed by what you’ve said. It lasts for all of a moment, before they remember that they have canyons to brave, tigers to tame, and villains to fight. This, is just wasted time. So, without hesitating, they turn away to the park, run back up the slide, and fade into oblivion once they reach the top.

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