New York City winters sting. Skyscrapers darken the sidewalks, which are dusted with white salt to melt the black ice underneath. Gray gives way to gray. The lights from overcrowded apartment buildings make the stars imperceptible, especially in watery winters. Snow falls and melts, trodden by boots and taxi tires. Slush coats the concrete and leaks back into the wind-whipped water. Temperatures plunge in early December then again in late January, each drop in degree registered in your blood vessels.
“So, the cabinet thing makes you fight your worst fears? “Yeah.” Ben insisted we watch Harry Potter because he learned I had stopped reading at book three. We were watching The Prisoner of Azkaban because he'd left off there in his re-viewing of the films. (I had too, I guess, just twenty years earlier.) In this scene, children were battling giant snakes and spiders that emerged from a magic armoire. “I wonder what I’d fight,” I said. “What does failure look like?” He laughed and got up to smoke a cigarette in the biting December air. Gray smoke hovered outside, framed by the yellow-dark at the edges of his window. I’d tried to explain my struggle with fantasy stories. It’s not that I never liked Harry Potter; I’m too literally minded to get it. I’m too rooted in reality to extract myself from it. “I just don’t have a very good imagination.” “Well, there are different kinds of imagination.” “That’s true,” I said. I hadn’t framed it that way before. I always believed fantasy better-suited those who wanted to flee to the outer-edges of possibility and avoid reality. Growing up, I imagined tangible careers and wealth and success. I was living at the edge of a chaos cultivated by an alcoholic parent, and the only way I could imagine was to plan. I needed more than a metaphorical escape; what good would wishing for a broomstick have done for a girl whose only dream was to leave her family for real? If we’d watched the Cabinet of Nightmares scene when I’d first met Ben, eight years earlier, I think my response would have been different. I’d moved from Montana to New York City at 18 to go to college. I pledged a sorority in my sophomore year and quit a few weeks in, realizing I had tried to find the same community I'd abandoned in high school at a college known for its high suicide rate and, like the city it resided in, was sometimes criticized for its solipsism. My disloyalty set the downfall of our pledge class in motion: two girls quit right after me. The three of us celebrated our re-found desire not to belong anywhere at one of their apartments, making crafts and getting drunk. Ben was my friend’s live-in boyfriend at the time. He was nine years older than me, wore all black, and had a corporate job I didn’t understand. He sat with my fellow pledge class dropouts and me while we glitter-glued cotton balls to construction paper. He poured us beer. “From what I’ve heard, this sorority sounded really culty,” he said. “Yeah, I knew I had to leave as soon as they told me I couldn’t leave,” I said. “I’m so glad you quit, Maryann," my former pledge sister confessed. "We wouldn’t have quit if you didn’t.” I lost touch with both sorority friends soon after we graduated. Five years after I met him—almost to the day—Ben and I started sleeping together.
Arizona winters are bland. The desert is dry and naked all year. Cacti retain their stoicism from month to month. The stars are unimpressive, like paint flecks on a tarp. No snow falls. It is endless beige. The weather doesn’t allow for gray space.
My parents abandoned my home state as soon as I moved away. They didn’t like the Montana winters. I was the last of four children to leave and the only one to never come back. I had nowhere to return to. They hadn’t planned for me to go back to Bozeman, or visit them in Arizona, over any of my college winter breaks. The cost of flights and illogical logistics of the Northwest/Southwest/Northeast triangle made travel impractical. After two months away at school, my parents asked if I wanted to visit them in Arizona for Christmas. I spent a snowless holiday in their retirement community where my gray-haired mother downed a bottle or two of wine each day and spent more of her time telling her friends how great I was than she did asking me how I was. I blended into the landscape, like one glittering sequin among hundreds on something from my mother's closet. No one would have noticed me missing. A week later, my parents hugged me at the airport and sent me on a plane to Bozeman, where I would spend the week alone. My parents weren’t worried I would throw wild parties, or starve, without supervision. They left me an empty house in Montana.
Montana winters are frigid and long. The snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks loom above the suburban town of Bozeman all year, subtle reminders of the cold that will return. The summer landscape turns brown then white then gray. The days become overcast by cloud cover, but the night skies are vibrant with stars, their distant glimmers like reflections of snow in the atmosphere’s mirrored black. Snow falls by mid-October and stays. It jackets the earth in infinite crystalline white. For a few days, before the SUVs and pick-up trucks have soiled it, the snow owns everything.
I was 19 my last winter visit to Montana. I’d met Ben a month before, the quintessential New Yorker: he wore all black; he smoked; he was nocturnal. My relationship with him then was that of an acquaintance, but I felt more anchored to the cold autonomy he projected—to New York—than I ever did to home. Growing up, I used to imagine the Rocky Mountains protecting me from what existed beyond them. When I returned that winter, I came to see them as jeering giants, reminding me how small I was. I didn’t need a week in an empty house to know I didn’t belong there either. The night before I left, I saw my high school friends a final time. In the middle of the night, my former friends and I drove into a blizzard in search of whatever used to connect us. We landed at Wal-Mart. It was one of the few places open all night and large enough for a pack of teenagers to roam undetected through its aisles of snarky t-shirts, party-size packs of off-brand ice pops, children’s toys, and guns—some just up for grabs on endcaps. We dispersed, each setting off on our own adventures through the empty aisles humming with fluorescence. I awakened an aisle of Tickle-Me-Elmos, pressing each toy’s belly and provoking it into laughter. Their adorable giggles amplified into a haunting reminder that, there, I was alone. I also found an E-Z Bake Oven for $19.99. No sales tax. I brought the piece of recovered childhood back to my house. My friends came with it. I got a bowl to mix the ingredients and found that a Dixie cup would have been more than sufficient. The packaged dust called for a teaspoon of water. E-Z Bake confections played to their audience: tiny hands with tiny stomachs. I loaded the cookie with the special handle. It was what had always appealed to me about the toy: it felt like a pizza oven. Although, a rudimentary understanding of science quickly kills the magic of a toy that cooks things with a 60-watt light bulb. My friends huddled around the E-Z Bake, the yellow-dark fluttering at the edges of the sliding glass doors behind them. The nascent light of near-morning bounced off the immaculate snow sheath outside, untouched in our absence. My friends curled around the table—the table where I sat with my mother for an hour in a furniture store while the saleswoman explained how to play Spoons. It was not the table of my childhood. Not the table where my sister showed me how to color. Not the table where my parents confronted Valerie about her eating disorder. Not the table where we ate dinner as a family until I was 12. Not the table where our mother told us Vick had a tumor removed from his shoulder. My parents discarded my childhood with all the ease of a tattered t-shirt. The table where Max told me to test the hot glue by touching it, the table where I quit reading Harry Potter, the table scarred with wine stains and crayon marks and memories then served as a printer and computer prop cluttered with Mom’s antique jewelry, spools of thread, and fabric scraps from her unfinished craft projects. It was the last camouflaged remnant of my childhood in that house. The rest had absconded, like my brothers and sister, or discarded before I hit eighth grade, when my parents and I moved across town. I tried to hold on to my childhood through old friends, to take it back by buying a toy I’d never owned and marching it into an empty house. I’ve made it! Look what I can do without you! But it was a familiar absence. The vaulted living room ceiling, the Montana mountain peaks, the missing mom and dad: their echoes dwarfed me. What resonated in Montana was its emptiness. My high school friends were friends of convenience and proximity in a vast landscape. We belonged because of where we lived, not who we were. Eventually, our divergent ambitions would set us on separate paths, and our imaginations could no longer sustain us on only the novelty of a children’s toy. Years later, the man I’d met just a month before in the icy cold of New York, would remind me that there is more than one kind of imagination, and that what you leave behind isn’t always abandoned. My fantasies may have only reached as far as unrealized childhood baking dreams, but I had always seen a life for myself: one that was not defined by the geography I inhabited, but by my choice to live there. I had fantasized of a world where I could belong as an outlier, to be one glittering sequin amid snowflakes, landing on the slushy sidewalk and sticking, even just for a little while. From the opposite end of the dining room table in my empty Montana house, I watched my then-friends smile and laugh, as if I were peering in from outside. I felt my snow-capped heart beating, beating, beating, and imagined its tiny reverberations off the plaster walls around me. I could feel it, desperate to get out. I was never afraid of solitude. I was afraid of being trapped. The signature ding startled me lucid, beckoning us to our sugar cookie. I cut it into pieces, and it crumbled into powder. We ate it in seconds and left dry crumbs on the table.
Ben's cigarette smoke whispered into the black and floated up toward the few visible stars in Brooklyn. Soon, we too would fade like smoke in the night. New York City winters sting. But at least you can feel them.
Maryann Aita is a Brooklyn-based writer and performer. Her work has appeared in PANK, which earned her a Best of the Net Nomination, as well as The Porter House Review, The Exposition Review, Big Muddy, and Press Pause Press, among other journals. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Twitter and Instagram: @maryann_aita; Website: maryannaita.com.