A Night to Yourself / Isabella Domingo Hendricks

A girl and a boy embracing. The girl is wearing a white flower crown, and has an engagement ring.
 

CONTENT WARNING: panic attacks.

***

Armand has been comforting you for two hours. Comforting. The term is funny, you think. What defined an action as comforting—was it the intent of the comforter, or its actual effect on the comfortee? Should it still be called comforting if the perso­­­n on the receiving end felt terrible? You think of Gran’s funeral six months ago, when Armand shifted closer to you in the pew, took your hand, whispered, “She was very old. She lived a good life.” You didn’t feel better, but you did say thank you. Comforting is like a gift, you think—it isn’t the action, but the gesture that counts. You appreciated the sweater he gave you your first Christmas together in the wrong size, and the dinners he cooks once in a while that lack the spices you usually use—and most of all, you appreciated the engagement ring you received, even though wearing something that expensive makes you nervous. (What doesn’t make you nervous, anyway?)

What he’s doing now, then, is comforting. It’s not his fault that no amount of soft-voiced reassurances and gentle strokes on the arm can contend with the amount of adrenaline that rises up in your blood every time he brings up the trip.

“It’s only a night,” he says, for about the fourth time that night.

“Thanks,” you say, because you know how to be polite when given a gift, even if it doesn’t fit quite right.

He wraps you in his arms and the feeling of enclosure tricks your body. You settle there, your lungs let in a little more air, you breathe a little more slowly. You hate that this works. You know better, and that before long you’ll be alone. But right now, you’re not. Someone is touching you and the simplest parts of your brain know that means someone else is there, you don’t need to panic.        

At least, you don’t need to panic until tomorrow morning.

The stubble on Armand’s cheeks scratch your own as he leans in closer. “You shouldn’t be scared,” he tells you. “You haven’t had the nightmares in years.”

You want to say, they aren’t nightmares. You say, “I haven’t been alone in years.”

He says nothing, but leans in a little heavier, letting more of his weight rest on you until it’s a little uncomfortable. But he knows how that helps, more than words would at this point. He wants you to tell him you’ll be fine. You don’t give him that, but you do tell him you should both be getting to bed—permission for him to stop the comforting.

The pressure around your body releases sharply as he lets you go, a dizzying looseness replacing it. He settles next to you on the couch and unmutes the TV, filling the room with pseudo-Renaissance flute music, and the click click click of an Xbox controller as the knight onscreen slashes away at monsters, mages, other knights—a horse, for some reason? How this could relax someone before bed escapes you, but you don’t judge Armand—after all, he never says anything about your nighttime routine. You reach into the pocket of your hoodie for your rosary, and kneel on the floor facing your spot on the couch. Your first night after moving in together, you’d started praying alone, kneeling next to the bed. By the fifth bead you were kneeling against the closed door—how you moved there without getting up or noticing was unclear—and by the seventh you were next to him, kneeling, in the spot you are now, whispered reverences mingling with frantic clicks and creating what would come to be your lullaby.

Before starting your prayers tonight, as always, you press the smooth silver crucifix between your palms, letting it cool you. You always run a little warm, but the silver relieves you, and gives you a moment to stare at the red beads. Although the rosary lives on you at all times, moving from jacket pocket at home to apron pocket at work, you’re careful not to take it out too much throughout the day. The beads distract you—you can’t stop from looking at them too hard, until the distorted reflection of your face, blood red and glassy, no longer stares back at you—you see other figures in the glass and remember when Gran gave it to you years ago, when the beads were so clear it would’ve been impossible to keep track of the thing if not for the silver crucifix and chain. Before the rosary had turned red.

“I believe in God.”

It sounds like someone else’s voice when you hold on to the crucifix and begin the Apostle’s Creed. The prayers, the slashing, the clicking—the relief of the coolness of glass and metal in your hands all evaporate and you are left, kneeling, staring, your mouth and hands moving to an ingrained rhythm of prayer while you remember.

You are six years old when Gran gives you the necklace. She tells you it’s a special gift, a reward for finally learning the Our Father well enough to say it through without forgetting a word or stopping. But the day she gives it is the same day your father leaves the house the three of you had shared, with a duffel bag you’d never seen before slung over his shoulder. Not much from that day will remain with you into adulthood, but there are two things you won’t forget: that the old faded red duffel grew larger and larger with each of his steps toward the door (you will never understand how he walked through the frame with a bag that had grown twice his size) and the sting of strand after strand of hair being ripped out when Gran pulls the necklace over your head, the chain catching in your dark curls. “It’s not a necklace,” she says coolly, but she’s not looking at you when she says it. Her gaze fixated on the door, she says quietly, “It’s called a rosary,” and then, “How was he able to leave?”

You are thirteen years old when you threaten to run away. You’ll find your mother, you think. Shouldn’t you at least try? Your familial history feels more like a map than a tree—given up by your mother (with that kind of adoption contract that makes her unreachable, despite your best attempts), accepted, temporarily, by your father, finally, ceded to your grandmother. You plot out the people in your life as best you can but still can’t navigate—getting by is easy, but you never quite know where you’re going. How could you possibly orient yourself without knowing where you started? Gran could tell you, if she wanted. She could at least give you a hint. “Why try to know someone who isn’t here?” she tells you when you ask for a name. She answers the same way when you lead into the question in other ways—what was she like? Did she like the foods that you eat? What did she look like? Although it feels like you have half an answer to the last one, at least. She must look something like you. After all, your brown skin and eyes and hair must come from somewhere—and they didn’t come from your father or Gran, who were both only brown in the littlest specks of freckles on the tops of arms (father) or high points of cheekbones (Gran). The family resemblance on the paternal side reveals itself in shapes—the full lips you and your father both share, Gran’s large teeth—but you’re sure you inherited colors from your mother. Unfortunately, that was all you were sure about. You stare at yourself in the mirror often, wondering, guessing, and figure that you’re just as bad as the boys who ask “Where are you from?” and then respond to your answer of your hometown with, “No, where are you from.” Tired of knowing where you are from but not where you are from, you ask Gran again, for what you tell her is the last time. You’ll leave without a map and chart the course as you go, if you have to. But this time she sighs, and her pale blue eyes, usually too busy to rest on you for too long, stay fixed on you. “You look more like her every day,” she tells you. “And she was Catholic, like us.” It is so little, but after a lifetime of wondering and wandering, it feels like so much. You stay.

You are sixteen years old when the creature rips your throat out. Every detail of the night will stay with you, but in the years that follow, when your mind wanders—although you do your best to forbid its roaming—it will return again and again to the bread. You’d thought of leaving before. You’d said you would before. And once, only once, you’d packed a backpack with the T-shirts you loved most, basic toiletries, an extra pair of sneakers and the little cash you had. Tonight, you start by packing the same things into your backpack, and although the few necessities don’t take up nearly the space you had, your bag looks stuffed and weighs so heavily on your shoulders. It grows with every step bringing you from your living room toward your front door, until you are unsure if you’ll fit through with a bag twice your size. You are halfway down the hall when you stop and turn into the kitchen on your left. You should pack food, you realize. Gran’s distaste for “fake food”—the packaged, preserved stuff—has always meant better meals, if more work for the two of you. But tonight you are coming up empty-handed as you scour cupboards for something dried or canned that you could take on the road. Where are Spaghettios when you need them, you think—even though the only spaghetti you’ve ever had is Gran’s with the sauce made from fresh tomatoes. You know you are spoiled. All Gran withholds from you—your mother, your culture, stories that are missing that you don’t even know how to long for—are mediated by the way she houses you, feeds you, keeps you when no one else does and teaches you how to care for yourself. Why can’t that be enough for you? What would be enough for you? Shoulders aching from your bag, you lean against the counter, try to reconsider your plan, take a deep breath, and—bread. You don’t know how you missed it before. The warm, doughy scent drifts toward you and, inhaling deeper, you can taste the fresh loaf cooling in the oven. The scent should convince you to stay, but as hard as you try to feel comforted and safe and at home, you can only wish for a home you’ve never had. You have to at least look for it, and luckily, bread travels well. After carefully wrapping the loaf in a cloth, you place it at the top of your bag, careful not to wedge it against your back. Before you strap it onto your shoulders again, you reach into the zippered pocket for the plastic bag where you’ve put your valuables and fish out the rosary. You pull it over your head, tuck it into your shirt—to better feel the coolness against your overheated chest, not to hide it—and this time, you make it out the door.

You don’t remember how old you are when you return that same night to the place you lived once upon a time. It will come back to you, rushing you in hot nauseous waves when you make it through the door you never thought you’d open again. Gran is waiting for you, and you are too weak even to fear the yelling that won’t come as you stumble through the door, wondering how you are still alive and wishing maybe that you weren’t. She doesn’t stand up, doesn’t yell at you, barely looks at you—maybe she doesn’t see the blood. She would help you if she saw it, flowing from your neck, dyeing your green shirt brown and your blue jeans a sickly deep indigo. How have you not bled out yet? You try to call her but the mechanics in your throat that do that are gone now—the creature got them before you even had the chance to scream. Although it wouldn’t have mattered if you screamed, anyway. You were alone when it found you. Years or maybe a few minutes pass by before Gran finally rises and approaches where you’ve collapsed a few feet into the hallway. She steps around you and reaches to close the door you left open on your way in. Crouching and leaning toward you, she reaches for your neck, and you brace for more pain. But you don’t feel anything on your throat anymore—the draining, burning pain of the wound on your throat is replaced by sting after sting, so light in comparison they almost feel like kisses, of the rosary catching in your hair when Gran yanks it off of you for the second time in your life. Strength returning to your limbs, you reach for your throat, and your hand comes away dry, not blood-soaked like the rest of you is—was. When you look down at your clothes they are stained only with dirt and grass, not darkening, congealing red, and when you feel around your throat with your fingers over and over again the wet opening is replaced with your skin—smooth, unwounded, if a little too hot. You are shaking, and Gran takes your hand—you welcome the comfort, but she pries open the fist you hadn’t realized you were clenching, and places the rosary into it, saying only, “I told you this is not a necklace.” She leaves you on the floor there, and long moments pass before you reopen your palm and stare at the beads in your hand. What was once a colorless translucence is now a red so vibrant it nauseates you just looking at it, reminding you of the blood pouring from you just moments ago. You lift the necklace—the rosary—the thing of blood red-glass and silver to your chest and wonder if the action of holding it is so difficult because the loss of blood has weakened you, or because it truly grew heavier.

“Amen.”

Click click click.

If only your mind tired, you think, of wandering backward. Tonight, your prayers are done, the knight is almost through with his massacre, and only seven short hours separate you from fending for yourself for the first time in so long. Armand sleeps easily, as he always does, when the two of you go to bed, but despite knowing that you should rest tonight to prepare to stay up for the next twenty-four hours, you drift in and out, woken up every half hour or so by sounds of flutes and church bells and oven timers and growls. You think it is unfair for sounds in your dreams to wake you up, but guiltily pull back your frustration. You should be thankful—or hopeful—that those sounds are only in your dreams.

You leave with Armand in the morning, even though you have hours until the lunch shift at work. He looks surprised and happy when you join him on the hour-long train ride to the airport. You wish that you were doing it for his sake, to see him off, but you know you have to carefully map out your time to stay as surrounded as possible. Even with the ride back and then to work, you still show up to the restaurant forty-five minutes early, to the annoyance of the other servers. The manager already favors you, giving you all the extra shifts you ask for even though you don’t need the money anymore. Armand could take care of everything if you let him, but the thought of the free time scares you away from leaving the job, even if it meant you might find something better. There might be a gap, or a new job might not reliably keep you busy as much as this one does.

The lunch shift goes by slowly and today you don’t mind. For a solid half hour, no customers come in, and you drift from table to table, straightening the already perfectly straight chopsticks you yourself had already set. You wipe the laminated menus again, until they reflect your face back at you, and regret that particular task a bit. You catch your own reflection, and even without considering the bento specials printed across your cheeks, you don’t look too good.

Dinner is busy and time moves quickly. The man comes back and sits in your section, where he does on occasion. You don’t know his name, but you know him. A few times before he’s come in, ordered a special roll, and made unbreaking eye contact when you bring it over. Like the times before, when you bring him the check tonight, he asks what your plans are for the evening. You’ve always told him your busy, not bothering to add with my fiancé because you figure your engagement ring would add that warning if it was something he cared about. But tonight you tell him you don’t have plans, and when he writes his number on the receipt, next to a name you learn for the first time, you actually slip it into your back pocket. You don’t intend to use it—you have no interest in him, other than as a backup plan—but you’re ashamed nonetheless.

He and everyone else leave, until only you and another server are left. You close out quickly at the point, making sure you’re not the one staying late to lock up.

You start your usual route home, but take the train the wrong direction until it reaches the end of the line, before riding it back to your stop. The last few stops start to worry you, as it gets sparser and sparser the closer to your apartment and the further out from the city you get—but a couple friends discussing the movie they’d just seen keep you company, and thankfully, they walk down the same street as you for a moment before you turn into the busier town square. Places are starting to close, so you map out the night. Grab food at the burger place that closes at ten, pass the next two hours in your gym, which closes at midnight, then finish the evening at the only bar in the square, open until two in the morning. From there it’ll be just a few hours in your apartment until morning. Unfortunately, you aren’t on the schedule tomorrow, but you can haunt a bookstore or mall or restaurant—anywhere—before meeting Armand at the airport.

Your night begins with cold fries and a pre-made burger that, based on the consistency of the cheese, have probably been sitting out for too long. You eat each fry in five bites, careful not to rush through the food. The counting gives you something to keep your mind on.

You keep counting at the gym—bicep curls, squats, miles on the treadmill. Somewhere between the fortieth squat and the third mile you feel your stomach twist and spend fifteen minutes of your gym time throwing up in the locker room. A woman changing from a sports bra to a backless dress eyes you sadly as you rinse your mouth out at the sink and return to the cardio area, this time to the rowing machine so you can sit down. You’re beginning to have trouble counting each row. The number doesn’t matter, but you can’t stop your mind from racing and taking your heartbeat with it. You row faster as if to justify your sweat and rising heart rate, and when the gym staff make their “fifteen minutes to closing” announcement, one of the trainers gives you an approving nod on the way out. Nice dedication, he tells you.

The bar is crowded, thankfully. You get a Coke and take it to a table in the back, seeing how many conversations you can listen to at once. A couple on a first date that looked like it was going well from the outside actually sounds pretty dismal—the guy won’t shut up about his startup. If you’re bored from the periphery, you can’t imagine his companion’s tedium. You shift focus to a big group, a bachelor party—that’s good, you think, with so many mingling voices it’s harder to understand and requires more focus to make out the words, leaving less space for your thoughts to go elsewhere. Hearing them brings you guilt though, reminding you of your heavy left hand and the man who will be out with a group of his friends like this soon. The man whose proposal you didn’t hesitate to accept, not because you love him—although you do love him—but for the sake of your own survival.

Gran was thrilled when you announced your engagement. She fell sick shortly after. She told you she had been holding on for so long for you, until she knew you would be cared for. She gushed over Armand—a nice Catholic boy who would marry you in a church. On one of your last hospital visits with Gran, she told you to wear the veil she’d worn on her wedding day, and you were taken aback by the unusual sentimentality. Gran, who said “I love you” with pies and “be careful” with bread, was passing down an heirloom that was romantic rather than devout. Did she know how you longed to have something of your mother’s to wear? How you wished your something borrowed would be borrowed from a woman you never knew and couldn’t even picture, but who you still felt connected to, your heart and veins aching as if your blood were being pulled by her force as the tides are pulled by the moon?

Gran followed by telling you that the aisle was a contentious place where your soul could be stolen from your mouth if it wasn’t veiled before your first kiss as a wife. She held your hand while she told you that, and twisted your engagement ring round and round your finger. Never take this off, she told you. It should keep your soul tethered until then.

She died the next day.

You think of her in the bar, half listening to the slurring bachelors and twisting your ring round and round your finger. The round diamond grows brighter and larger with each turn, until it covers your hand and lights up the bar like a flare. Around one thousand and two hundred twenty-two little twists later, they announce last call. The bachelor party had grown rowdier, and they buy you an extra half hour as they argue with the bartender over the tab. No one bothers to kick you out while they all settle, and you exit unnoticed behind them, disappointed to see them veer away from the street you have to follow home. Extra time at the bar had been nice, but you regret it now. You should’ve left when everyone else did, the chances would be better you could shadow someone for at least part of the walk home.

A howl in the distance.

Despite the cold air, everything feels hot. Frantically, you reach deep into your jacket pocket and feel smooth, icy glass, and cool silver ridged with the outlines of Christ and his wounds. You start to run.

You make it home. After sprinting up your stairs—you won’t be taking chances on your building’s rickety elevator tonight—you slam the door behind you, slumping against it and sinking to the floor. The dizziness clouds your vision, and you wish you kept that burger down earlier, or at least thought to order some other greasy food at the bar. Anything in your stomach would help right now. Your heart is still racing, but your eyelids feel heavy, and you curl up next to your front door, hoping you can drift off right there and manage to stay asleep until—

Breaking of glass.

The sharp, fast crash comes from inside your bedroom. Your senses must be dulled by exhaustion and hunger, because before fear, your first instinct is confusion—do you and Armand even have anything breakable in the bedroom? No windows, no lamp or TV, no figurines unless Armand has a hobby you don’t know about, what is in there that could make that—

The scratching of claws against wood.

That wakes you up.

Your mouth opens wide but no scream erupts. Frantically, you reach for your throat and feel a temporary relief when you touch the smooth skin, without so much as a scar or a birthmark. Your hands come away dry. Your windpipe is here, then, you just can’t find it right now.

A low, wet growl.

You cannot stay here.

You spring up and out the door but run back in for a moment, to your kitchen, and grab a knife. Without thinking you grab the one with the largest handle. You’d used it recently to butcher a small chicken for you and Armand, and thought then that it was too dull for the job.

You run down the stairs clumsily and are reminded of a children’s book you’d had to read in school, where a violent boy falls on his own ax. You hope you are not the villain of your story as you make it down the last flight and out the front door.

You run north without thinking. The sparkling heat has left your body, replaced by a dry ice that leaves your throat raw when you suck in the cold air. The cold nourishes you and clears your head. It must be four in the morning by now. You can make it to the reserve just a mile north, and hide from the creature there. If you can last an hour, there will be runners out for a morning jog. You won’t be alone.

Heavy thuds in grouping of fours, growing faster and louder with each breath.

Keep running.

You are unsure at which point the thud against concrete turned into the crackle of crushing fallen leaves, but you trip over a root and fall to the ground, your knife securely in your hand. You have made it to the reserve. You sit, back against the tree whose root tripped you, right hand clutching the hilt of your knife and left around cool glass and silver. You close your eyes and tighten your grip.

Hot breath on your face.

You force yourself to open your eyes.

The creature is all razor-sharp teeth and huge, glassy eyes as it looks back to you, mouth open, staring at you from a stance of alarming stillness. You should run. You should fight. You should smash your head against the tree to wake up from the nightmare Armand tells you this is.

You stay where you are.

It grows closer and leans into your neck, pinning you against the tree and cutting off some air, sniffing around you before settling by your stomach. You pull out the rosary from your jacket pocket and place it over its head, hoping the chain doesn’t catch against any gray fur. It slips right over.

The creature is anxious now, shifting weight between its massive paws. Mud flecks your face and clothes as its tail frantically kicks up the earth beneath it.

It is eyeing your left hand.

It does not growl or lunge you, but opens its mouth slowly as it nears your ring finger. Your vision is blurred by hot tears as you lie still, waiting for your body to grow wetter with blood. You close your eyes, hoping for your thoughts, always so changeable, to wander freely this time, take you somewhere away from here. You see a face. Not Armand’s beautiful, forgiving, clear features or your Gran’s lined expressions that conveyed both care and judgment simultaneously; not the outdated picture of your father who you haven’t seen since he managed to fit through the doorframe or the disjointed collage of features you throw together when you try to envision your mother. Not even the face of the creature that haunts you every night and morning and countless times throughout the day, whose breath is filling your lungs with a hot, unbearable thickness.

Your own face stares back at you and for the first time you see yourself not in reflection, but as you are. You are not warped by glass or the color red or lunch specials or your own tears and blood. You are someone, even when you are alone. You are someone. You have a soul and it is tethered, even if only to yourself.

You feel the tension of the creature’s jaw around your finger but you are faster. Quicker than you’ve ever moved before, you bring the knife down.

Blood flows from the hole where your ring finger had been. It soaks into the earth beneath you and the creature heaves a heavy sigh. It lies by you, its white fur turning redder and redder until there is no color left on the creature but red.

You are twenty-six years old when Armand returns from his first night away from you. He rushes into your unlocked apartment, calling out your name, finding you in bed. You are startled awake, unsure of how you ended up back in your place or how you managed to sleep for over twelve hours. You apologize for scaring him and for not meeting him at the airport as planned. You look down at yourself to find your clothes reflect nothing of the past night. No blood and no mud. You meet his worried eyes and tell him sorry, again, and that you had another nightmare. He kisses you softly as if he sees the bruises that have disappeared, and holds your hand gently, his gaze lingering on the deep, ruby stone decorating your ring finger. It wasn’t a nightmare, he tells you. His arms encircle you, and as you lean into them you feel a familiarity, a warmth, a love—but not the safety his embrace once brought.

You break away and walk to your bathroom. Your hands feel hot, and without silver to cool you, you run your hands under some cold water. You look up at your reflection in the mirror, and as you meet your own dark eyes, your hands feel relieved, your body safe, your mind clear and your soul tethered.

***

Isabella Domingo Hendricks is a Boston-based writer who enjoys returning to familiar stories and reshaping the folklore and fairy tales that shaped her. You can find her reading and watching copious amounts of books and television (for research purposes, of course), on Instagram (@isabelladomingohendricks), or at isabelladomingohendricks.wordpress.com.