The door whooshed shut behind me, and the cold wind slapped my face as I headed out to my car after a long, stressful day of work. My mind was a whirlwind, thinking of the piles of bills to be paid and the heaps of work to still be done. Reaching up with one hand to move the hair out of my eyes and rummaging around the inside of my seemingly bottomless purse with the other, I squinted as I searched around the dark parking lot for my car. Stumbling over the curb, I slowed. Amongst the piles of dead leaves in the mostly empty parking lot, there was a man standing next to my car. My breathing accelerated, and my heart pounded.
“Amanda!” a voice called. My back straightened, and my jaw clenched.
“Who’s there?” I could hear my voice shaking, and I cleared my throat.
“Aaron. Remember me?” Of course I remembered him. As I came closer and saw his deep, brooding eyes, memories I had worked so hard to push away came tumbling back. Happy, youthful, careless memories of games and laughter and birthdays. But then the other memories – the ones I had spent years trying to forget – washed over me. Aaron, walking out the door. Our father’s screaming voice, telling him to come back, that we would find him. That he could not leave this family. That it was not his choice. I remembered the chill traveling down my spine when I heard the tone of our father’s voice, edged with something that I could not quite place and that I did not quite understand. I remembered crying over the old Polaroid pictures our mom had taken of me cheering for Aaron from the sidelines of the school football field in Queens, my cheeks red from the cold. Crying for hours, so utterly shaken, so broken, that my brother had wrecked everything I had ever dreamed of.
Focusing on the moment, I forced myself to hold it together. Putting a smile on my face, I bounded toward him and into his open arms. His grip was tight and his arms were muscular. I led the way into the car and drove to my apartment, sneaking glances at Aaron the whole way there. Arriving, I dropped my stuff at the door and walked into the kitchen. I gave him an awkward tour of my tiny flat, and opened the fridge to see if there was anything decent for us to eat. I glanced back to where Aaron sat on the sofa, watching me, and he smiled warmly. I tried to relax. Pulling together some sandwiches, we sat down and made small talk about work, weather, anything except what had happened so many years ago.
I slept in the next morning. I had taken the day off work, and I was anxious about talking to Aaron after all these years. Padding into the kitchen, I turned the corner to see Aaron flipping pancakes. After eating and getting dressed, we slipped into boots and jackets to keep us warm in the chilly New York weather. He was calm and relaxed, but every movement I made was calculated, and I had to control my tone and hide my anger. We moved slowly through the day as I showed him my favorite places, the little pond near my building, and the coffee shop I frequented. We walked with his arm draped around my shoulders. He talked, and I nodded. “So, I graduated college on a scholarship and got a law degree,” he said, looking composed and nonchalant. But, there was a lump in my throat.
“After law school, I moved to New Jersey. I am a lawyer now,” he said. “My wife is named Elena, and we have a little boy named Benjamin. We call him Benji,” he said, a smile turning up the corner of his lips.
Hearing that, I finally snapped. I could not do it anymore. I wrenched myself out of his embrace.
“Did you tell your son?” I demanded. “Does he know that you left your family all alone? Ditched us, without any warning?” my voice steadily rose. Aaron tried to put his arm around me and lead me away from the stares of the people around us. I slapped his hand away. “You have no idea. I cried for days. Dad yelled at mom every night, saying it was her fault that you left. I cowered at the dinner table because he would come home so angry. Do you realize what you did to us?” I screamed. Tears were streaming down my face. “Do you know how I felt? I had no idea my brother was the kind of despicable person that would leave his own sister alone with the horrible man our father turned out to be. I had no idea I could feel so hurt and crushed and heartbroken. I had no idea I would still ache, twenty years later, every time I met someone named Aaron. You didn’t understand. You couldn’t,” I shouted. People gawked at me, but I looked only at him. “Do you understand now, you filthy, heartless, horrible excuse for a brother?” I spat. I was out of breath and shaking with tears, and I did not object when Aaron grabbed my arm and led me over to a wooden bench in the park.
“Calm down, Amanda. Breathe,” he said soothingly. I obliged and took deep breaths. After a moment, I noticed that he was crying, too. His forehead creased, and he sighed. “Amanda, I want you to know that I did not leave for the reason you thought I did.” I opened my mouth to speak, but then shut it. “I…I…I left because of our father,” he said quietly. I frowned, and he continued. “He had always been an angry person, even before I left. But instead of taking it out on mom, he took it out on me,” he looked down toward the bench.
“What do you mean?” I asked, scared I already knew the answer.
“He told me that all of our money problems were my fault. He hit me. You were always asleep, or out with friends, or busy with mom. He hurt me with words, or with his belt, or with anything else he could get his hands on. I had to leave. I didn’t say goodbye to you because, if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to make myself leave. I am so, so sorry, Amanda.” He looked up, searching my face. I could not even begin to comprehend what he had just told me. I felt another pinch at the back of my eyes as the tears came again. My vision blurred and my lips quivered, but I tried to articulate what I was feeling.
“Aaron,” I breathed. “I am so, so sorry. I had no idea,” I said, and shook my head, trying to untangle the mess of thoughts in my head. He nodded, and we sat in silence for a moment.
“I can’t believe I was so ignorant. I relived the moment you left over and over and over, but it never occurred to me that you left because you had to, “ I said, exhaling slowly.
“Amanda, it’s not your fault. You shouldn’t feel bad at all,” Aaron said, his expression turning into concern. I did not know how to explain the guilt gnawing at my chest, but I knew that I could not let Aaron blame himself.
“How can you even say that?” I whispered, my voice breaking.
“How could you have known?” he countered.
I was at a loss for words. “I…I…” I watched him slowly shake his head.
“Let’s start over,” he said, finally.
“Yeah,” I murmured. We rose, and he led me into a coffee shop. Settling down at a little table in a corner, we folded ourselves into the busy crowd of New York and shut out the rest of the world as we started to rebuild the years I had thought I had lost forever.