The phrase “dead of winter” always confused me, for that is when things seem most alive to me, its silence amplifying even the smallest of sounds; the clean, cold air distilling the perfume of the forest; the blinding whiteness that somehow makes up for the forfeiture of color. The season itself became a sort of reflecting pool for my mind, a place to look for the tiniest of fissures as in a February lake.
The baby had finally succumbed to sleep, her body a warm bath in my arms. There had been many nights like this lately, in which the act of placing her in the crib and slipping from her room gave me only false comfort; for soon I would be stiff and wide-eyed, rising once more to pluck her like a ripe fruit and rock her until her cries dissolved into my breast.
On this particular night, I hadn’t even bothered to leave her. She had been fussing all evening, protesting wildly every time I left her sight. I had read in a book once that this was normal, even expected. I held my then-swollen belly and thought, foolishly, that somehow I would be spared all the inconveniences of motherhood. Perhaps it was protective to hold onto this fantasy so tightly: I did not have to sit with my ambivalence of becoming a mother. The fatigue had already settled deep in my bones by then, and I felt resigned to do nothing but tend to every need she had — real or imagined. So I held her and stared out into the snow-crusted hills.
Units of time became interchangeable to me since giving birth to Elliot, so I am not sure if this was seconds or hours after she let out her last tiny hiccup. But suddenly I was in shadow, as if standing at the bottom of the ocean. Something swept in front of my nose, something heady and vague and clawing. Something I had been waiting for. It was here.
Love, I heard a familiar voice say to me. His voice. I reached through the blue dark, twilight trembling in the folds of space between our bodies. My fingers passed through his, all flesh and air. His rosebud lips curved into a smile and pressed it against my fingertips.
He could feel me, but I could not feel him. I could only sense him.
In dreams this scene has played out before, except I could always feel him: the smooth skin covering the map of veins on his wrist; his warm mouth that, when cracked, revealed two rows of imperfect teeth, which I also touched; his silken dark hair that shone golden in the afternoon sun; his chest, where my lips would graze the flesh over his heart; his ribs; his belly and further down; many times he would pull me back up and kiss me deeply, holding my face in his hands. Then he would withdraw, whisper something.
What? I’d breathe. And then I would wake up.
Dreams were no longer enough, but they were all I had.
Love, he repeated, sharper this time, lifting me out of this reverie — a preferred dimension, where the only man I truly loved was more than light and shadow.
Daybreak was at our heels. Pastel light was slowly edging out the dark, sending the moon home, and him along with it.
Please don’t leave, I said, my words lonesome, a feather in the wind.
I have to, he said. Again I reached for him, to run my fingers along the constellation of freckles on his forearm. And again I felt nothing, save for the thin morning air, still cool with night. Then he smiled.
I love it when you touch me like that, he said, receding from me, as if he had no choice but to be swallowed by the sun.
I grasped the air for the last wisps of It: his musky skin wearing the hours of his day, something between baby flesh and burning leaves, especially the spot on his neck that would somehow always find its way to my mouth; the chemistry of sweat and his borrowed cologne; the ghost of his last cigarette. And then there were the final trappings of summer, a veil of heat and gasoline and flowers.
For twenty years I had tried to will It back to me, as if doing so would bring the moment back in its whole, untarnished by time and memory. At first, I thought that if I kept my eyes shut long enough, I would be delivered back. I had also read that in a book once: people who defied the basic laws of space and time in order to go in reverse and do something they deemed crucial — to prevent a death, to right a wrong, to take that untaken chance. I wondered if I could somehow dig my own wormhole between now and then to kiss him again.
I knew the moment It left me: a distinct before-and-after, very much like his presence in my life. He was there, and then he was not. The grief that followed was not so much a slow burn as it was a quick knife that severed me from the rest of the world. And so it was again. I wondered how long it would take this time to stitch us back together. Because minutes and days felt the same to me now, I assumed it would take years — whatever that meant, I was unsure.
I buried myself in my daughter’s sweet, bare head and fell asleep.
My husband woke me some time later, scooping Elliot from my chest and disappearing into the other room. I stayed curled up in the armchair and watched the small light of morning pad through the cracks in the forest. Somewhere close by a cardinal sang, its trill a deafening summons to the present. And the clean, cold air dripped through the crack in the window, and then out again, distilling the perfume of my present. I hoped, then, that it would make its way to the trees and find him there.