"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


My grandfather had two copies of every book he owned—a Korean version and an English version—making for an astounding personal library. He sorted bookshelves by color, creating gradients from darkest to lightest books while making elaborate paintings, fashioning oceans from books like This Side of Paradise and Bleak House. Walls were stacked from floor to ceiling with shelves, and new books in piles on the floor. He was always sunken in his recliner, laying down his book only when I would jump into his arms. 

I spent my childhood summers stealing books from my grandfather’s library and running into his untamed yard. A girl dressed in yellow sundresses and hair in pigtails would run off, sprawling chubby baby legs in fields of golden grass as she ran her fingers across the worn pages of his books. Her grandfather, finding her hidden amid the grass, would read by her side until fireflies rose up at dusk. The sun would duck down to shine pale gold light through the dandelions as he would envelop the girl’s hands, and lift her onto his shoulders for the journey back to the sun-soaked library. It took just those months for that room to forever smell of summer: a scent that little girl would recognize.  

My grandfather sent me The Great Gatsby for my thirteenth birthday; always remembering to send a book. On the inside front cover, in shaky handwriting was, “you remind me of the person in this book.” I didn't know which character he was alluding to, nor did I care (thirteen-year-olds are presumptuous that way) so I set the book aside. It took a year and my grandfather’s hospital visit for me to pick up the book. 

I fell in love with Gatsby, but I also caught myself falling in love with his extraordinary hope for repeating the past. I've come to realize that we adopt pieces of history we adoringly remember and push away painful memories, reshaping the past to make it golden. The little girl in me is smitten with ideas of summer fireflies and novels and forgets that midsummer heat also brings thunderstorms. Because things aren't golden: blurring the past and present into a stream of grey and gold makes it impossible to distinguish between who you are and who you want to be. 

The little girl in me probably doesn't believe in the girl that she grows up into—she hasn't felt the nights spent on cold marble floors, sobbing to a God she doesn't believe in; she doesn’t know how antidepressant pills feel going down her throat and how much she will grow to hate it; she thinks that she’s had enough heartbreak to last the rest of her life and she has no idea how much more she will have to endure; she is comprised of stronger stuff than she knows, and one day I hope she will realize that, even if I never will. 

I writhe with this unexplainable sadness within me and have for more years than I can remember. The time blends together seemingly happy memories and taints them with a sort of blackness that churns out the sinking feeling in my heart that is amplified with every “just don’t be sad” or “just be happy.” If Gatsby had the chance to abandon his memories as James and adopt his full persona as Jay, wouldn’t he have? Aren’t we all a little emboldened and in love with versions of ourselves that have never existed but we still believe in? The version of myself that doesn’t make every fallen glass, every lost friend, every misspoken word into a metaphor for my own greater self-worth.   

So here I am, running towards memories I am not sure are mine to remember, my arms outstretched for truths that do not exist and green lights lit by the fragility of my past and how I let my heart and mind bend it. Perhaps one day, I will get to lie in fields of gold with a daughter, and in the wake of dusk and rise of fireflies, I will tell her stories about a little girl who ran her fingers along words she did not know but loved and breathed in summer-tinged books. I will tell her memories and heartbreaks of a girl who did not exist but I wish did. I will tell her how I have never met her, never reached her, and yet, “among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars,” how much I miss her.

Sara Jhong is a high school junior attending Great Neck South High School on Long Island, New York. She is the print editor in chief of her school's student-based newspaper and also manages the Op-Ed section of the paper. She is devoted to journalism and literature and hopes to continue to write in the future. Instagram: @sarajhong

Cover photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

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