Guillermo “Guy” Rivera cannot believe how kind, thoughtful, and professional his home healthcare work, Dane Mathis, is. The man seems to have a preternatural ability to predict every one of Guy’s needs. And because Guy is suffering from amnesia due to a car crash, Guy counts that as a very good thing. In fact, Guy is interested in taking things to another, more personal level. When he gets rebuffed one time too many, Guy goes so far as to offer to release Dane from whatever contract he’s entered into as Guy’s caregiver, just for the chance to see if things work out romantically between them.
However, it’s not a lack of interest or pure professional ethics that keep Dane away. In fact, Dane isn’t a real healthcare professional at all. Rather, he’s the man who broke Guy’s heart several months ago after a night of drunken debauchery. When Dane—still listed as Guy’s emergency contact—understood the extent of Guy’s memory loss and the fact that Guy’s current boyfriend didn’t feel up to the task of caring for Guy 24/7, Dane decided to step in. Despite being dedicated to seeing Guy recover, Dane knows that as soon as Guy’s memory returns, so will all the reasons Guy and Dane didn’t stay together. So Dane is determined to put the kibosh on any romantic overtures with Guy. It’s just so hard when Guy is creating new memories of Dane, ones where Dane does nothing but the right thing 100% of the time.
(Just Like) Starting Over is a contemporary short story set in southern California and has been rereleased a couple of times. Dane is a California guy born and raised, working a dull, nine-to-five type job. Guy is an expat from Spain who’s come to America to get his MBA. Despite having these details about Dane and Guy, I wasn’t really sure why they were pertinent. The whole point of Dane’s job was apparently to give him financial security to stop working for two months and take care of Guy, while also having the job security to go back to work after so much time off. He wasn’t passionate about it and calls himself a “cog in the machine.”
Similarly, I wasn’t really clear on how/why none of Guillermo’s immediate family ever managed to make it over to America to help Guy through amnesia. Sure, it would have required an international trip, but nothing indicated he was on bad terms with everyone back in Spain and there were no travel restrictions in the book. Guy suffered a car crash that left him with casts around a leg and an arm—and he got amnesia to boot. And speaking of “amnesia,” this trope is rather heavily applied. Guy doesn’t just lose a few weeks of memory, or just the memories around the actual car crash itself. He seems to lose every memory of everything about himself—favorite color, movie, food, what stars are, etc. He also seems unable to reliably remember things post-accident as well, such as whether he’s been told certain information or not.
Personally, I thought this world building and the amnesia trope together make a rather far-fetched scenario for our two characters. The specifics of Dane’s professional life and Guy’s apparently indifferent friends and family in Spain annoyed me. Perhaps the bigger elephant in the room, though, is how I felt like Dane was almost gaslighting Guy about, well, everything. Dane lied about being a healthcare professional, about Guy’s insurance paying for said “healthcare professional,” and about Dane and Guy being complete strangers. Of course, the events of the book play out such that the reader is just in time to witness Guy finally convincing Dane to give a personal, sexual relationship a shot. Dane gives in and hot sex is had. The morning after is pretty spectacular and I was almost, oddly, proud that Dane realizes he crossed a line.
Espinoza’s handling of Dane being alcoholic was something I ended up enjoying. Honestly, I was initially chagrined when the fact that Dane has a problem with drinking is first mentioned. It is first brought up about halfway into the story and I thought it was just another aspect of Dane’s character, like his job and finances, that wasn’t going to go anywhere. I was pleasantly surprised when this facet of Dane gets worked into the rest of the story. Dane taking ownership of his alcoholism gains more traction once Guy regains his memories, affecting how Dane and Guy react after Guy’s amnesia goes away. For me, I thought this was the strongest, most realistic display of character in the book. I feel like Dane takes responsibility for being an alcoholic and, though it ruined his life in ways he thought/thinks are irreparable, he won’t let himself or Guy use it to excuse his behavior. In hindsight, this was probably the highlight of the story for me.
Overall, I thought (Just Like) Starting Over suffered from what felt like a lack of planning and a lack of research. The details of Dane’s and Guy’s lives are explained, but they don’t seem to mean anything to them, to the reader, or the plot. Guy’s experience of amnesia feels like sheer make believe. Even with these shortcomings, the way Dane accepts his alcoholism and how Guy and Dane react and interact after Guy gets his memories back were strong points. For readers who enjoy lovers-reunited type storylines or readers who just enjoy amnesia plot devices, and of course people who like angst, I recommend giving this short story a chance.