This story is by N. Perry and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I’m no older than three, probably younger. I don’t have much hair. I’m tiny, still in diapers. I’m just little.
I am in the living room, a toy phone sitting in front of me. I pick it up and say, “Hello?”
As I remember this night, I recall that the sofa in the room is a royal blue color with pilled fabric. Three cushions wide, rounded armrests on each end, and a high top back.
I tilt my head to hold the phone between head and shoulder like I see my mom doing. I stand, hold the phone to my ear, drag the connected phone base behind me, and watch the wheels spin. I pretend to talk on the phone.
I stop to look at the TV and see Fred Flintstone slide down the back of a dinosaur, ending his day at work.
The big people nearby are talking louder. The sunlight coming through the windows is fading. The lamps in the room are turned on now, creating a fog in the smoky room. Big people are sitting around a card table, coins in piles along with beer cans, ashtrays, and cigarettes. The cigarettes create a smell that makes me cough when I breathe. The music is turned up louder and louder as the voices get louder through the night.
One of the women, beer can in one hand and cigarette in her mouth, comes over, picks me up and looks at my whole face. “I can see you have your mama’s big eyes,” she says, as she scrunches her eyes to avoid the smoke and tilts her head back to keep from burning me with the red tip on the cigarette.
I wiggle to get away, raise my arms up and turn myself into a floppy fish that’s hard to hold onto. The woman sets me down and I go back to my play telephone.
I hear loud laughter and voices. I see legs and shoes. A loud noise scares me, and I look for a face I know at the table.
“Grampa, up?” I say.
My grandpa sets his pipe down, takes a drink out of the can next to him, puts his arm under my arms, and pulls me to his lap. I look around and most of the people have cards in their hands holding them close to their chest. My dad picks out one of his cards and slams it down in the middle of the table. The people around me start laughing and yelling and everyone throws the cards they were holding on top of my dad’s. The game is over and everyone stands up.
I climb down from grandpa’s lap and go back to my toys on the floor.
I try to reconcile memories of myself as a young child with how I see my own children. I can see them on the floor with dolls and cars, talking to themselves, making pleasant noises. Sweet, carefree children, running and laughing and chasing each other. I have trouble imagining myself that way, perhaps because I seldom felt carefree or safe.
What happened next led my mind to create a subconscious belief about myself and people and life and safety. This belief has been a filter through which I have experienced everything in my life since then.
What is the belief that my 3-year-old mind created? They are monsters.
I hear a loud thump and men yelling, and I look up from my toys. Two big, loud, scary men roll around on the floor, completely out of control.
I don’t see my mom anywhere. I’m scared and crying. No one is there to protect me. I can see my dad. He is in the fight. He is one of the monsters. He and the other man roll around on the floor, and I climb onto the blue sofa to avoid getting hurt.
I cry out, “Daddy!”
I hear a string of words and sounds coming from their mouths, unable to understand what was happening or why. They get closer and closer to the sofa, and then the men end up on the sofa too.
This memory must be clouded by a toddler perception because it doesn’t seem to make sense that they’d be fighting on the sofa, but that’s how I remember it.
I climb onto the back of the sofa. High up where big people rest their heads. Beyond the reach of the monsters. An area that is big enough for me to sit on, but too small for them. I make myself as small as possible, curl in a ball, and hide my face in the cushions, still crying and shaking in fear.
Finally, an adult woman who is not my mom comes and plucks me off the back of the sofa. She pulls me into her arms and I cling tightly, wrap my arms around her and hide my face in her neck.
I don’t remember what happened the rest of that night.
As I recall the memory and describe it out loud to a group of people, I drum up the feelings I felt then. What do I feel?
Fear that he will be hurt. Fear that I will be hurt. Fear that he will hurt someone.
At that moment, I realize that the source of anxiety that I’ve lived with my whole life can be traced back to this fight.
The fear I have of people who are not in control of their bodies. People whose eyes have glazed over. People with dilated pupils and eyes that move in a strange way. Bodies that sway and stumble unpredictably. If only I were simply fearful of drunk people.
I fear being hurt. I fear that others will get hurt. I fear that I will hurt someone.
I am on high alert, always and everywhere. My fear sits in a coffee cup, full right up to the rim. It spills and drips out when I least expect it. If something happens to fill the fear cup just a tiny bit more, that fear overflows and keeps pouring out on me and everyone around me until the cup has emptied enough to settle again. And then it’s back to the regular spill and drip.
To me, this is the ultimate paradox of childhood and life and memory and time. I was much too young to handle this event alone, and yet I did.
I imagine myself as that little toddler and I let out a sob.
The hot tears roll down my face and I wipe them away. I cry for the little girl who had to hide from her violent, alcoholic father more than once. I cry for the little girl who was left alone to fend for herself during most of her life.
The next morning, in my playpen next to the blue sofa, I wake up to quiet. Calm. People I don’t know are asleep on the floor and on the sofa. I see beer cans on the card table and ashtrays that overflow.
I imagine my adult self picking up this toddler, and I sit with her on the old, blue sofa. I hold her in my arms as she releases her fear and sadness. I place my hand on the back of her head, press her against my body, and instinctively make a ‘shhh’ sound.
I cling to my adult self as a baby would, and nuzzle my toddler face into my adult shoulder. I find comfort there. I find safety.
I speak out loud to this little girl inside of me, a sound that can be heard in both the room on the blue sofa and in the midst of a group of other adults who have gathered to heal their own trauma.
“You don’t have to be afraid anymore. I’m here to protect you. I’m big now. You can be a little girl again. It is safe to play.”
I pull myself away from the comforting shoulder and look up into the face of the woman that holds me. I see nothing but love. I believe her. I am safe now. I climb off her lap, down from the sofa, and I look out the window. I see the swingset outside. It’s morning, and I’m ready to let myself out of this room and go outside to play in the sun.
Two selves come together on the blue, pilled fabric, high backed sofa. My forty-three-year-old self takes responsibility for my toddler self to heal an old wound.