THE NIGHT WE MET
by Aimee Hardy
I opened my eyes, and it was snowing.
I was all alone.
I lay there wrapped up in a blanket, looking out at the snow. The TV was playing softly in the corner, but my attention was captivated by the white outside.
I don’t remember how old I was, but when I tried to move my bones ached. It was like tiny pieces of glass were ground into each muscle and joint. But the snow called. It sang to me.
Slowly, I put one foot down in front of the other and I made my way outside.
The snow looked like diamonds raining down in slow motion around me, and it felt like butterflies kissing my skin. The smell of sawdust and sunshine filled my nose. Tears flooded my eyes. An indescribable pain gripped my chest, closing in on my throat. And then it was as if you were all around me, swirling in the air with the snow. Hugging me. Putting your arms around me. Saying all the things you couldn’t say, or wouldn’t say, I was never quite sure. All I could do was close my eyes and hope it was real after all this time. All I could do was think back to the night we met.
I stayed outside for so long that night that my feet and hands turned blue. Their color never quite returned. And neither did I. My heart was so full that night, so happy to have heard your voice again, so happy to finally know that I was enough, that I didn’t even worry about disappearing forever when I let out my final breath in the snow, with my heart so full and warm among the frozen ground.
I was almost seventy when I was all but disappeared for what looked to be the last time. Every time someone walked past my room they couldn’t see me. I was just a shadow. When I felt like I was invisible, I would squeeze my husband’s hand that was twisted with arthritis. My hand was so small that I wasn’t sure if he could even feel my hand. But I would hang on to the hope of Sundays, of visitors. And that last Sunday happened to be on Christmas. My daughter and son came with their families. They brought presents and treats. The kids laughed and I showed them how to draw Christmas scenes and make snowflake chains out of tissue paper and napkins. The smiles on their faces made me glow for weeks. That glow spread into the hallway and everyone who walked the hall couldn’t help but turn their heads and look at me when they passed.
At fifty-five, I woke in the middle of the night, and I knew that the world had changed.
I ran to my phone. I knew it was my son-in-law before I even answered.
“Is it time?” I asked without seeing who it was.
“Yes, we’re headed to the hospital now.” My son-in-law replied.
I rushed to the hospital, getting there well before my daughter. My husband told me to calm down, that everything would be fine, but I just couldn’t wait. I was there to hold my daughter’s hand, just as my mother had held my own hand. And I felt complete as I held my first grandchild, a little girl, in my arms.
“She has your eyes, you know, mom.” My daughter said to me. I didn’t know my daughter was still awake and looked up, surprised.
“I’m serious,” my daughter said. “It’s all you.” She smiled.
“That can’t be,” I said looking down. I looked up at my daughter again and smiled sadly. “Everyone always told me that I got my eyes from my dad.”
My daughter reached out her hand and grabbed my shoulder.
“No, not the color. I mean the sparkle.”
I smiled and began to hum softly to my granddaughter. When my granddaughter would get older, sometimes she would hum that tune over and over without quite knowing where it had come from.
One day I woke up and discovered that I had disappeared long ago. Or so I thought. I was thirty-three. I was a decent wife and mother, but somewhere along the way I had disappeared. I was going through the motions so thoroughly that I hadn’t stopped to realize that I was a ghost.
I had even forgotten my own name.
I folded piece after piece of laundry and would have gone on folding forever if not for my son.
“Mom?” He asked, peering into the room.
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I had even lost my voice.
“Hey, mom! I’m talking to you,” he giggled. “I see you, you know.”
I looked down at my hands, doubtful.
“Where?” I asked.
“Right there,” he said, pointing.
“I can’t see it. Where?”
My son giggled and came towards me, and without pausing, touched my heart. It took my breath away.
“You see me?” I asked.
“Uh-huh,” he giggled again. “I always see you, mommy.”
I wrapped him in a tight hug and I could feel it, then, deep inside. I was still there.
I was nervous.
I hadn’t seen him in at least ten years and we hadn’t parted on the best of terms, to say the least.
But now he was coming back.
The visit was tense but my father looked proud. His chest swelled when he toasted to me, his only daughter, and the wonderful thanksgiving dinner.
Then he downed the glass.
And then another.
And then a few shots.
Soon, his voice began to boom and I could hear him slam beer bottles in the trash. I could still hear the crunching slams even after he had replaced his beer with shots.
Talk shifted from Thanksgiving to food to a disagreement about stuffing to a full blown argument. I knew what was happening before it even started. The room began to spin. I saw it all in slow motion, how my father grabbed his girlfriend, how he slapped her once, then twice, across the face, how my husband stepped in and how my father rounded on him in anger with those eyes, those black eyes. They were the ones from my childhood, from my nightmares. They were the same eyes that still haunted me even though I was whole again.
My father left and his girlfriend begged until he came back, until she could leave with him. I felt sorry for her but I knew just how she felt. I knew how good it felt for him to look at her and tell her how sorry he was and how much he loved her. I knew how nice it felt when he pulled you into him with that sawdusty smell and told you that everything would be fine.
I cried myself to sleep that night in my husband’s arms and thought of snow and that tune that I couldn’t get out of my head. And I wish I could go back to when things were simple. I wish we could go back to the night we met.
The first time it happened was when I was twenty-one. I ran my hand across the smooth handles of the kitchen knives. They were cold to the touch but they felt good. Heavy. Substantial.
I took the knife into the living room and sat, praying that the loudness would go away but it wouldn’t. I put the knife to my skin. And then I heard it. Silence.
But then it blared again. It blared so loud that I couldn’t take it. So I cut. And I cut again.
I knew I shouldn’t. It wasn’t rational. It wasn’t right. But the sound stopped and it didn’t come back until later that afternoon, and by then, I could just take one of my sleeping pills and go to sleep. A sleep so silent and so deep that I didn’t have to think.
And so this continued, working for awhile, until it didn’t anymore. My friends didn’t understand. My boyfriend had broken my heart. My mom was gone. My dad never called. I was all alone.
I sat there that night, watching myself disappear in the mirror inch by inch, wishing all the pain and the noise would stop. I tried to hold on to my reflection in the mirror. I looked so much like my mother. But I couldn’t make out my face from all the darkness. What a relief it would be for it all to just stop.
So I took the rest of my sleeping pills in my hand and swallowed them one by one on the cold floor of the bathroom. I laid down, my cheek resting on the cool tile and there it was.
I could almost feel the release when I felt a strange pull from my stomach. It heaved beneath me, and the earth tilted.
I struggled to sit up just in time for the contents of my stomach to find their way into the toilet. My stomach heaved again and again, each time painfully reminding me that I was here, here, still here.
After several hours, I got into my car and headed to the only place I could think of that would take me: home.
I tried my key but the chain stubbornly held the door closed. Reluctantly, I pushed the doorbell.
Although I knew mom wasn’t home, would never shuffle to the door in her bathrobe, sleepy-eyed and half smiling again, I couldn’t help but old my breath and listen. I heard my father’s heavy steps before I could see him. He came to the door groggy with sleep, alcohol still on his breath. But he asked no questions. He could see it in my eyes, at least the shame, anyway. He, who could take unwanted things, and make them beautiful again.
And we never spoke of that night, although it would haunt me for years. The time I was so alone I wanted to take my own life. The time I was so alone and the only person there for me was my father. The time I was so alone that I almost disappeared forever.
At fifteen, I stood in front of the mirror, and I felt different. The change was so small that I barely noticed. I shook my head, my dreams still clinging to the ends of my hair, other worlds still clouding my eyes. They were puffy from crying the night before, but I pushed those thoughts away like I always did.
That night I joined my mother in the kitchen. It was pizza night and the yeasty smells of dough rising from the back of the stove filled the house like a warm balloon. My mother hummed softly to herself as she grated cheese. Always that same song. My dad bounded up the stairs, winked at me, and kissed me on the head on his way to grab a beer from the fridge. I watched dad walk back downstairs and wondered what he was working on today.
His favorite activity was collecting scrap material from work. He would save all the pieces of wood or marble or tile that would otherwise be thrown away. He would take them all home and create something beautiful out of all those unwanted pieces.
Mom let me decorate the top of the pizzas with cheese and pepperoni, before she put them in the oven. I never went near the oven. Once, at four years old, I burned my finger on one of the hot coils in the oven and had never opened the oven door since.
The timer rang, and the pizza was ready.
After dinner, I got a shower. Even from down the hall I heard my father slam another beer bottle in the trash. The clangs were louder this time, as there were more bottles in the bottom. I pretended that the warm water was a magical rain. I pretended that as it rained down on my skin I was being transformed into a magical princess.
But soon the water ran cold. I looked down, and I was not transformed. I was not special. I quickly turned the knob on the shower and knew that I would soon be in trouble for using up all the hot water.
“Finally,” my dad slurred. I could smell him from the other side of the room. It oozed from his pores. “What were you doing in there? Staring at the mirror?” I felt my face go red. His eyes slid down my body and made me feel self-conscious. I immediately sucked in my small tummy and waited. “Those thighs though.” Suddenly he grabbed one of my thighs and squeezed. “You’re gonna have problems with those thighs. If you don’t watch out, you’ll be the fat girl, and then nobody will look at you. You’ll be invisible.”
I tried to smile, tried not to cry, but my father was way too past drunk to even notice the tears streaming down my face. He always knew how to shred my heart into pieces without even trying.
I went to the kitchen to get some water but my mouth was too dry to swallow. I set the glass down on the counter and looked up.
Knives. Shiny knives.
I wiped the tears from my cheeks and wished I could go back to the night we met.
At twelve, my mother tucked me in. We played with light shadows from the street light outside. I made a bunny, and my mom made a dove. We laughed, my mom kissed my forehead, arranged the too many teddy bears around me, and said good night.
That night I woke the house with screams. I fled to my mother’s side of the bed and fell into my mom’s arms. I was sweating and shaking and my mom held me so tight.
It was a dream, just a dream. My mom got me some water but both of us were afraid to let go.
“Do you want to talk about it?” My mother asked.
I just stared off into the distance.
“What was it about?” She asked again.
I took a breath. “There was a man. A bad man.”
My mom waited patiently for me to continue.
“He… he tried to get me. He kept coming for me. It was like I would try to run and he just kept coming. There was nothing I could do. He was going to catch me no matter what I did. And in the end… he did.”
I looked up into my mother’s eyes and trembled again.
“Aw, honey. It’s okay. You’re safe here. I’ll keep you safe.”
My mom wrapped her arms around me and squeezed me tight. I wrapped my arms around her in return and we sat there holding each other for hours listening to my father’s snores across the hall.
I didn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t close my eyes.
A few weeks later it happened again. And then again. And then again. It was always the same. The man with those eyes, those black eyes, and with a voice that sounded like beer bottles smashing in the trash can.
I woke up on my seventh birthday. It would be the first birthday with both my mother and my father. All my friends came over and I wore my new birthday dress from my grandmother. We cut the cake and sang and had presents. Everyone got ready for dress up. My mother invited the girls to pick anything from her closet and we all strutted down the hall as if it were a real runway. We fell into a big heap on the floor laughing and I almost didn’t notice that somewhere in the laughter my father had left and he didn’t come home that night at all.
I woke up and stared at the ceiling. I was only three days old. Someone was picking me up, someone who smelled like fresh cut wood and sunshine. He held me in his arms and he promised me the world, his only daughter. It never occurred to me why he hadn’t been there at first. I didn’t protest when he left that afternoon and didn’t come back for days, for years. I didn’t notice.
I thought back to the night we met instead.
She held me so close. She traced every vein on my translucent skin. My mother, who would erase every hurt he caused, every drunken scene, every nightmare, every absence, every I love he left unsaid. My mother who was soft and warm and hummed me songs every night. My mother, who made shadow doves in the windows. My mother, who tucked me in with teddy bears. My mother, who kept me safe. I was nestled safely in her arms, and my gaze shifted to look out the window.
It was snowing.
About the Author:
Aimee Hardy is a writer and educator from Atlanta, GA. She is married, has two children, and currently lives just outside of Birmingham, AL. She studied literature in college and has spent the last five years writing and teaching students how to develop their own voice. For more information on Aimee Hardy, please visit www.aimeehardy.com.