It was always cold in the house I grew up in. I didn’t realize it for years. I wore heavy hooded sweatshirts and socks, always socks, up until it warmed up in May. The water used take forever to get warm, and I’d do anything to avoid washing my hands with a plank of bar soap under the cold water.
The house was too big to heat well. A two-story wall of windows faced out into the backyard, and the winter seemed to creep in through the glass. The family room’s old, scratched leather couch felt like ice. The fireplace was rarely lit, except for special occasions or when my father came home early from work. The draft came down the chimney next to the couch, so I would curl up on one end with a too-small knit blanket and watch hours of tv until my mom sent me upstairs my for bath.
I remember watching an old Bugs Bunny short when he gets into a cauldron of hot water and dips one toe slowly in, and then gently eases the rest of himself into the boiling pot. I sat on the toilet waiting for the water to get so hot I’d burn my toes. Then I’d fold myself into the bath like Bugs Bunny and let the water creep up to my chin. After half an hour, my mom would climb up the stairs and pound on the door, saying I’d run the well dry. I didn’t care. I didn’t really understand what a well was, and even if I did I would have stayed there, my ankles turning pink under the faucet, the room steaming up so the wall paper curled at the edges. Then I dropped a bar of soap in and let the bath turn translucent. I dipped my head under and the water whooshed into my ears, drowning all the sounds but the churn of water flooding in and out of the tub.
After, I wrapped myself in three towels. Always three — one wrapped around my body and tucked under my arms, one spread over my shoulders, and the third swept up so my hair didn’t drip. And then the door would open, and the cold air rushed into the bathroom, and the steam poured out. I’d stay warm for just a few more moments longer until the cold house enveloped me again.
My parents met him and they didn’t get along.
I had figured as much, but when it happened it was like a slow-motion disaster. Everyone was on their best worst behavior. He had his cellphone out too often. My dad acted like a jerk. My mother tried to be nice. He was too quiet. They were too quiet. I was too nervous to think of anything to say and kept shoveling food into my mouth like I hadn’t just had lunch. I had. I had eaten too much and I felt full of fish tacos and salad and resentment.
They didn’t get along.
He came up that Saturday night, even though there were never any city people up when the weather got cold. People only came in the summer, filling the narrow sidewalks with little dogs and carriages, holding hands and smiling knowingly because they had, just for that afternoon escaped. But it was cold and the city people stayed put in the city. I guess he didn’t want to stay put that night. Even city people need to run away. That didn’t mean it made sense to me. It just wasn’t worth running toward.
The season was too long. I had split up too many sets up gloves, lost to the winter like lonely laundromat socks. My hands were dry and my nails were raw. The pockets in my pea coat sagged from constantly jamming in my ball-up fists. I had a nasty habit of picking my cuticles. I swore too much.
We trudged through the frost, the cold ghosts on the street rising up around us.
I don’t know if the town had grown poorer or if I had grown older. I’m sure, added to the recession and the stark winter, it was a sad combination. The storefronts were often vacant and the houses sat back against the county roads were littered with abandoned cars and foreclosure notices. The streets were swept with crusty leaves and balled up run-off from indiscriminate trashcans. It had been bitter cold for weeks, and I was cold and I was bitter, too, and prone to silent repetition.
I’m at a walk-in medical clinic just outside of Poughkeepsie, New York. It’s been two hours before the doctor sees me. She shines a light in the back of my throat and gasps.
“Oh, honey, you must be dying.”
“Jesus, this is the worst throat I’ve ever seen!”
“And you’re burning up!”
She swabs the back of it three times and draws blood. I’ve either developed tonsilitis, strep throat, mono or swine flu. I am banking on strep throat, and I’m right.
“What do I win?” I ask her.
“Antibiotics and vicodin,” she says, and writes me a few prescriptions. “And I never give pain killers for sore throats. But yours looks like death.”
I grin, pathetically. That was the best news I’ve heard all day.
We’re Jewish, and I’m an atheist at that, but it’s Christmas eve and my family’s bar is closed for the night and my mother will be damned if we don’t have a nice family dinner together.
So I train up from Grand Central with old friends, my older brother picks me up from the Metro North Station, and when he pulls his old Cavalier into the driveway, my mother is standing in the window, waiting and watching for us all to arrive.
My dad comes home next, wearing a santa hat. My brother puts one on, too. My mom has roast beef tenderloin, potatoes, haricot verts cooking, and stands over the oven, gesturing at a spread of cheese and booze. My father pours us all shots. My brother makes some stacked Christmas shot, my dad goes for rum, I choose single barrel bourbon and my mother, who is not in the mood for hard liquor, sips a shot of red white.
The radio plays Christmas carols. Bruce Springsteen, but still. We sit over dinner in santa hats, tipsy and hungry, laughing and happy, missing the now-deceased family dog, missing my father’s now-deceased parents, dipping forkfuls of roast beef in the jus and happily, quietly, content to be Jewish.
The streets were swept with crusty leaves and balled up run-off from indiscriminate trashcans. He came too early and rested his guitar next to him at the bar. He drank pint glasses of wheat beer and left the oranges beached on cocktails napkins.
He was the type of man with a backbone that didn’t fold when he wept. The fine mop of hair laid sweaty against his neck, framed by the sharp hint of collarbone. The lines in his knuckles were deep gradations, aging his hand likes the rings in a split tree trunk. Across the room, his fishbowl eyes burned neon blue.
I looked back. He didn’t move much. I could see his spine stacked up beneath his undershirt. His shoulders were sharp, like someone had cut his wings off with a rough blade.
I felt his eyes on me that evening as he sat at the bar slowly drinking beer, carefully removing each orange slice from the rim of his glass and collecting them in a pile on the side. I wondered how drunk he was, or if he was drunk at all. I wished I had counted the orange slices.